As Ontario’s harness racing industry enters its third week of inactivity as a result of the province’s lockdown, questions remain as to whether harness racing will resume after that 28-day suspension of activity. In the eyes of some, like Woodbine Entertainment’s CEO Jim Lawson, there’s still a question of why it ever stopped.
In an interview with Trot Insider on Thursday, Lawson noted that he’s been in constant contact with government officials both at the provincial and federal level. That contact has involved professionally respectful discourse on social media with government accounts, pleading the case for the return of racing.
“I do believe certain government officials read social media, and they’ve at least got their staff members reviewing social media,” said Lawson. “My tact in using social media is, yes, I think it might have some impact, but more importantly, to get people — and especially leaders in the industry who do follow social media and who are active — to get them active … and you’ll see a lot of my thrust has been basically awareness and letting people know, ‘Speak to your MPPs.’
“That’s more than anything what I’ve tried to do is reach out to leaders in the industry through social media to have them contact their MPPs and to speak up and voice it. It can’t all be Jim Lawson speaking to three or four MPPs and some federal MPPs and deputy chiefs of staff. People need to step up and take responsibility for themselves, and if they’re unhappy, do something about it. I’m doing a lot more than social media, not relying on social media, and I’m trying to get people to step up and help. Don’t just look to Woodbine to try and fix this.”
Lawson made it abundantly clear that his mission is one of recognition, and one of parity for the horse racing industry. Shortly after this interview transpired, Lisa MacLeod announced that the Province of Ontario gave the green light for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators to play home games in their respective cities amid the COVID-19 pandemic — an announcement made just hours after the Province extended the closure of in-person classroom activities until at least January 25.
“I had a call [Wednesday] night from a prominent federal member of Parliament to ask me about all this. I think there’s a concern, and a recognition that, ‘What are we doing with the National Hockey League?’ In light of curfews in Québec, potential curfews in Ontario, growing cases in Ontario, why are we letting the National Hockey League proceed? They can try and rationalize it and say it’s safe, but let’s be honest: the National Hockey League has 30, 40 people per team flying across provinces, flying into hotels, travelling, going to restaurants and hotels. It’s pretty high-risk stuff. As it relates to the actual play, the players are getting negative tests regularly, they’re testing all essential personnel, to which I say, ‘We’re prepared to do that. We’re prepared to get our drivers tested three or four times a week, or get our essential personnel tested. So, what’s the difference? Why are you giving preference to one sport?’
“And then, what really hits home with them is when you look at the constituency of who we’re talking about. You’re talking about — at least in Ontario — a Conservative government that prides itself on its strength and its backbone in rural Ontario. It’s very concerned about those ridings, and there are thousands of people in the agricultural community — whether it’s hay farmers or feed people, you name it — there’s a big backbone in rural Ontario that, not only do they need the money from the purses, but these are the people these MPPs are supposed to be representing, not National Hockey League players and owners who for the most part don’t live in the province.”
There’s a frustration evident in Lawson’s tone regarding the lack of answers he’s been able to get for these legitimate questions and concerns.
“As I have these conversations, I get kind of a big silence at the other end of the phone. And, to be clear, I’m not against a lockdown, I’m not against the NHL. What I’m trying to do — directly and through social media — is to have the government consider the racing industry. I’m not saying the lockdown is wrong, and I also preface every conversation by saying that and by saying, ‘I know you guys are in a tough spot. I know these are complex decisions. You’ve got so many people, whether it’s amateur sports or the skiing community. There are so many difficult choices that you have to make. But why open the door to one sport and not others without fair consideration? Or don’t open the door at all.’ I think they’re finding that they’re really questioning if we’re going to have curfews in Ontario — for example in Toronto and maybe in Halton, where Mohawk is — what are we doing letting the NHL play?
“Again, my goal here is not to in any way damage the NHL; my goal is not to suggest that the lockdown in any way is not the right thing or important to do. My goal is really to say, ‘If you’re going to do this, let’s be fair and let’s consider the horse racing industry, where we have done things right.’ And we’ve operated seven months. When you think of it, our track record is — first of all, it’s remarkable that we operated seven months at Mohawk without COVID, and that’s generally five nights a week. But secondly, when you think of hockey, they don’t have that track record at all. They operated in a bubble for the playoffs, and by its very nature — of the sport and by the travel that’s required the way it’s structured — it’s definitely more risky than what we’re proposing.”
The impact of harness racing’s province-wide shutdown is definitely not lost on Lawson. Woodbine Racetrack was forced to shorten its 2020 meet when the City of Toronto was placed in lockdown on November 23 of last year, so the struggle for him is real. He’s not sure if those in government are as sympathetic to the industry’s plight or as cognizant of the far-reaching ramifications this shutdown will have on those involved.
“When they closed down Woodbine on the Thoroughbred side, I don’t think they had any appreciation that Woodbine was the only track that was impacted, I don’t think they had any appreciation of the magnitude of the jobs that they were going to impact, I don’t think they had any appreciation of the fact that we were closing down in 12 days, I don’t think they had any appreciation at some level that we were doing it without spectators, I don’t think they appreciated that we had one jockey not transmit potentially on site. They didn’t think of us; they didn’t consider us. And I don’t want that to happen again if we start to go into considerations of what can reopen in February and March.
“I’d like them to think about us and understand the magnitude of the number of people they’re impacting and how they’re impacting them. That’s why I’m speaking up on social media: to get people to contact their MPPs. But my efforts have been letter-writing — the call I got [Wednesday] night was a result of a letter I had written — and going directly. I want people to reach out and help.”
In its post-lockdown message to horsepeople on December 26, Ontario Racing stated that the organization will “consult with industry leaders and industry partners on the next steps, including the possibility (pending approvals) of redistributing purse monies from cancelled race days in the form of horseperson support payments, available to eligible Standardbred horsepersons who have horses in active training in Ontario during the lockdown.” Lawson recognizes that’s only part of a larger equation and he’s concerned for a bigger picture of industry health should the industry continue to stay dormant from a pari-mutuel racing perspective.
“Woodbine is the economic driver for the whole province. Our wagering, our economic viability is essential for the entire province. All the wagering done in the province right now is part of Woodbine’s home market area, and so the other tracks are dependent on Woodbine and the health of Woodbine, and the industry’s dependent on the health of Woodbine. And when I see what’s going on at Mohawk — and you have major outfits, and I have said this on social media — the problem we’re going to have at Mohawk is, if the big outfits with 20, 30, 40 horses drift down to the United States, the longer they’re gone — and it’s just a practical comment — if you go down there and set up shop for January, February and March, you’re going to start hiring people and you might rent an apartment. The longer you’re gone, the harder it is going to be to come back.
“At one extreme, if you go for a week, you’re just going to turn around and come back. But if you’re gone for two or three months, you’re starting to rent an apartment, you’re starting to hire people … you’re starting to settle in. This is one of the problems: we are going to lose people. The longer this goes on — and this is a real threat for me and this business in Ontario — if we lose those people for February, and it goes on through February, there’s a greater likelihood we’re going to lose them in March, and then all of a sudden Mohawk’s running seven-horse fields instead of 10-horse fields. And that starts to have a material impact on our wagering, our viability, the breeders’ programs in the province. The whole thing starts to spiral downwards, and that’s what’s going to happen the longer this goes on.”
The loss of activity through relocation is just one part of the equation.
“The other aspect is people are going to get out of the business the longer it goes on because they can’t afford to be in the business,” stressed Lawson. “They can’t afford to breed more horses, they can’t afford to take on that liability. If they don’t have that income over part of December, January, February, they’re not going to breed horses, they’re not going to claim horses. They’re going to retire or give away horses that could be racing in the summer. It’s a problem. There’s not that level of knowledge of what I just said in terms of the impact on wagering, the impact on breeding, the impact on people staying in the business, the impact as a result of people leaving the province and maybe not coming back unless we get going pretty quickly. These things are not being said by anyone but me. In fairness to government, they don’t understand them, but please, at least talk to me.
“I’m pretty frustrated that the government is making a huge investment in this industry — and particularly the smaller tracks across the province — and they don’t appreciate what they’re doing and how, as a result of at least those two factors I outlined, it could have a material negative impact on the viability of this industry.”
Lawson’s concern is genuine, and well-warranted. While many view Woodbine Entertainment as the operator of two racetracks, there’s a hard reality to face with respect to the economics of the horse racing industry in this province.
“It’s always difficult. People don’t understand the complexities of being Woodbine Entertainment, and we don’t get a lot of sympathy, but we try and look out for the entire industry. When you think of our industry and how it works, what is our role at Woodbine? We’re responsible for 90 per cent of the economics of the industry in this province. So, our role has to go much beyond just looking at optimizing wagering at Woodbine and at Mohawk. We have to think as industry leaders, what’s good for the industry, what’s good for everyone. Of course, there are conflicts and there are diverse interests, and that’s why we’re from time to time unpopular. It’s a fine line to walk.
“Is there any racetrack in North America that really feels it’s their responsibility to bring people to the yearling sales or to get that going and prop up that? Probably not, but it’s really a fiduciary responsibility of Woodbine because we’re the economic driver in the province and we have to look out for everyone. If we don’t do that, then we don’t have an industry. It’s difficult, but as a racetrack operator, from time to time, I have trouble doing that, particularly because I don’t have the people and don’t have the resources to be the answer for every need in this province…it’s all related to this period and why Woodbine is doing what we’re doing as a leader in this industry — to make sure that people understand that, if we lose racing outfits, if we lose people’s purse money, it has an impact on people creating in this industry. It has an impact on the low- to mid-market at yearling sales. In turn, the breeders are going to scratch their heads and think twice whether they breed five mares or 10 mares. And that ultimately has an impact on Woodbine as the economic driver of 90 per cent of this industry. And we’re running seven-horse fields instead of 10-horse fields, we don’t have the purse money, we have to start looking at cuts ourselves because Woodbine does contribute a substantial amount of purse money over and above the long-term funding agreement. It’s a complex issue, and that’s why I’m so concerned at what’s going on right now, and we need the government to understand and at least give us fair consideration to resume in February. Making the point about the National Hockey League is really just a way of saying, ‘Let’s be fair here. Let’s consider everything on its merits and on the facts.'”
Make no mistake: Lawson understands that health is paramount in this extremely delicate and complex predicament we’re all facing. But, at the end of the day, he’s not the one giving the green light to resuming NHL play and he — like everyone else — would think that the protocols in place for conducting hockey imply that it’s being done safely. If that’s the case, Lawson merely wants racing to have that same opportunity.
“Usually people say, ‘Give your head a shake. Don’t you realize we’re in a pandemic? This is all about people’s health.’ My response to that is that we’re totally sensitive to that. I know government’s in a tough position; I know health comes first. This lockdown is likely important to try and calm this down. All we’re trying to do really is say, ‘Listen, just consider the circumstances of the horse racing industry, and our record, and the people that you’re impacting, and the future of this industry.’ There’s an important distinction there. This is not me and Woodbine burying our heads in the sand. We’re totally sensitive and totally supportive of whatever it needs to do to diminish this impact of the pandemic until the vaccines hit a material portion of our population in Ontario. What we’re trying to achieve is to have the government and health people recognize us and understand that we can do it safely.
“Really, our voice is much more plausible. If they let the National Hockey League proceed, then you go, ‘Wait a second here. Let’s have a discussion about this and the whys and the hows of what you’re doing, and please rationalize it.’ I’m not anti-government in this regard, I’m not anti-NHL, and I’m supportive of taking the necessary health steps to calm this down. But we do need to — as an industry — have our voices heard and have us be considered so, when it comes to February, they understand the impact, the number of jobs, the economic hardship of this industry. And I know that hasn’t been considered, and we need to speak up. We’re doing a lot more than social media, but it’s my way of reaching out to the leaders of this industry. And hopefully they are contacting their MPPs and they are letting their voices be heard.”