Lawson On Mohawk Pilot Projects

In Newsby COSA

Trot Insider recently discussed a number of racing topics with Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, including the current pilot project that has moved the 10 horse to a trailing post and added 1-3/8 mile races with 11 starters.

Late last month, Woodbine Entertainment announced plans for added-distance races and a change to the Post 10 starting spot as part of pilot projects beginning in November at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

All races at Mohawk now score nine across the gate with Post 10 starting in the second tier. The track also launched a project to contest a race nightly at the distance of a mile and three eighths with 11 starters.

The first part of Lawson’s interview appears in a Q & A format below. Trot Insider will present the subsequent interview topics in the upcoming days.


SC: With the discussion of Downunder, and I think you spoke to this at the Stronger Together panel discussion, the desire to expand into those foreign markets like Australia and New Zealand where they have different racing distances and configurations, was that part of the consideration for the changes in the pilot project?

JL: “There’s credibility that it does go on elsewhere in the world, therefore we need to try it here. It helped us from a credibility standpoint. I’ll be totally transparent and say that the one exercise we’ve been spending a lot of time at is analyzing all the issues surrounding the nine and the ten hole, our winning percentages,  our odds on those horses, our odds generally in racing. We’ve compared our odds at Mohawk Park — and when I say odds we’ve looked at how many in each race at 1/5 odds, 2/5, 3/5 odds and compared that to post positions, compared that to other tracks, compared that to other distances…we’ve done the full analytics on it.

“What we’re trying to do quite frankly is just garner more wagering, and you don’t need to do a whole lot of analysis to conclude that if there’s 1/5 shot in the race, no one’s going to bet on that horse at a certain stage and no one’s going to bet against that horse. So everyone just stops wagering. So we have tried to figure out how we can help the sport of harness racing by mixing up the races a bit to make wagering more attractive because what we’re seeing — it’s not just what we’re hearing, we’re seeing — that with those heavy favourites the wagering is down, we see extremely low win percentages from the 10 hole and a number of other factors, so we started looking around the world and thinking about how we can improve the opportunities for our customers. one of the obvious is to move that 10 hole and move it into the trailer.

“I don’t think anyone in the industry will dispute that a horse has better chance [and] would rather leave from the trailer position than the [outside] 10 hole, especially on a seven-eighths mile track…I think that’s going to improve the wagering on the 10 hole and similarly we’d like to see a couple of trailers, quite frankly. We’re going to start with just the 10 hole in our regular races and I’ll be shocked if we don’t have more wagering on horses starting in the 10 starting in the trailer position because the wagering is really low, and the reason why the wagering is really low is because the customers are smart. You’ve heard it over and over that the public is smart and when they see the win percentages out of the 10 hole, they’re just not going to bet the 10 hole. That was probably the number one reason, and as you look around the world at other racing jurisdictions, you do see trailers. So that should help us from a wagering perspective.

“The distances is a little bit of the same thinking. How can we possibly mix this up a little bit to see if we can get away from the 1/5, 2/5, 3/5 favourites that you see in half the races? And it’s because of the equidistance, and I think once you start adding in another dimension and running a further distance I think it’s going to be fun for the handicappers, it’s going to be interesting for the horsemen. You know the horses are certainly capable of doing it. Given the configuration of our track, I think we’d prefer to be at a mile and a quarter or even a mile and an eighth but the configuration of our track right now doesn’t it. I guess there’s the possibility that if we change the finish line that might help for certain distances but right now we’re planning on going a mile and three-eighths and then have 11 horses in those races nad have two trailers. In order to encourage people to try and do it we’re going to increase purses for those races and we’re also going to give all starters a portion of purse — they’re going to get a starting fee too.

“We’re dead-set on giving it a try and I think at the end of a couple of months of trying it I think we’ll be able to analyze the wagering, see what the effect has been on the 10 post and also see if we’ve been able to generate some interest in the distance races, and I hope we can. Our sole motivation here is to make it more interesting for our customers and increase revenue for the industry. We think if this works and people are prepared to support it and try it, we’re going to get more wagering and we’re not going to have those heavy, heavy favourites all the time. It will make it more interesting to handicap and therefore you won’t have the 1/5 favourites the same way.”

SC: What was the reaction and discussion and embrace of this concept with COSA (the Central Ontario Standardbred Association) and the horsemen?

JL: “I think they’re supportive. Billy O’Donnell has been great in everything we’ve wanted to do and try. I think they ask good questions, we have a good relationship with them but at the end of the day I think there’s a very nice partnership going on there in the sense that if we explain ‘Hey, we don’t have any agenda here, we’re on your side! We’re just trying to make this better for the sport.’ and if there’s a way to increase revenue then everyone benefits. And I think they embrace it with that spirit, that we’re all in this together and we’re trying to help. And that’s the message that I’ve been repeating every chance I get in a public forum to say this industry in this province needs to come together and that’s why we call our communication sessions ‘Stronger Together’. If we can come up with legitimate reasons that make sense and say ‘hey, we want to give this a try, and here’s why and it’s going to make the sport stronger’ they’ve been very fair and supportive and that’s a good partnership. You can’t think we’d have an agenda for running longer races other than simply trying to garner more wagering for the sport and make it more interesting for fans, and potentially attract new fans. And the same goes for the trailers. Let’s just give it a try, and as you started out with our initial question, let’s give it a try because they’re doing it elsewhere. It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel; other places do this and so let’s give it a try because we think it will improve our product and improve our wagering, and it’s going to benefit everyone. With that spirit I think COSA has approved it and we’ll do it on a two-month trial basis. And I think at the end of that we’re very likely going to conclude that the wagering’s much better on the 10 hole for sure and I hope the distance racing is a successful experiment too because I really think it will make it more interesting. People may agree or disagree but I think we have to keep in mind that we’re trying to attract new people to the sport and we’re trying to make it more interesting for people. New people that we’re trying to attract to the sport don’t like seeing 1/5 odds and the horse wins…that’s why the idea of 11 horses and a couple of trailers going a different distance just makes it that much more interesting, especially when we’re trying to sell the sport to that 20-30-year-old [demographic] that are coming to the races for the first time for the good food and they say ‘oh this is kind of cool, they’re going a different distance this time’.”

SC: Could there have been anything done to the starting gate to possibly give the nine and the ten a bit more of an advantage, and was that considered as part of this process?

JL: “Very much so, and we’re planning on doing that too. We have designed a new starting gate that’s — I won’t call it tiered — has a design so that it gives the nine and the ten an advantage. It gives them that edge.”

SC: That will help the nine going forward, I guess that will depend on where Woodbine ends with this pilot project as to whether or not it will actually benefit the ten.

JL: “Exactly. But it is being designed to create a more equal playing field for the outside horses. We’re doing it, it’s in production and we expect, with the support of the AGCO, to get approval for this…I know it’s not a novel idea, there’s been staggered starts, tiered starts and I won’t say this is tiered, this is more of a design just to move the nine and the ten up.”

SC: How long do you expect this pilot project to run? I think you said a couple of months but I’m wondering if you have something a little more rigid in mind.

JL: “It’s two months right now … we’d like to get approval, maybe it will be at the end of the two months but I have no question in my mind that wagering is going to improve on the ten horse. And I think once we establish that, we’d really like to use the data at the end of two months to then go to the AGCO and say ‘listen, it’s really helped our sport, the horsemen are supportive, why don’t we start two trailers at a mile?’

“I’ll be surprised if we go back on this, I think that we’ll be able to establish that horsemen are happy — all horsemen would rather start behind the one than out on the ten — so the horsemen I think will embrace it and the customers definitely will, and I think we’ll be in a position to make this more permanent — at least I’m hoping we will, if that’s the result, that if it improves our data and people are happy with it that we’ll be able to do it. And if that is the case we would then propose we have two trailers.”

“On the distance, as I said, I think it’s a great experiment, I really hope it works because people who analyze the betting information like we do just realize we need to shake this up. We need to find a way to make it more interesting for the sports wagerer, the horse racing wagerer, across the world, that it’s more interesting. Our wagering, although we’ve been very pleased with it — I mean, I push our people that I want to see $3 million a night every Saturday night in the summer. That’s out goal and I think the way we’re going to get there is by making it more interesting, and larger pools will create more wagering. It compounds itself; people don’t like betting on small pools.

“So much of our wagering, people don’t understand this but I’ll say it, so much of our wagering is done by our large wagerers. And the large wagerers, once again, if there’s a heavy favourite and they bet $10,000 to win on a horse — you know, which the large wagerers do,  you know it suddenly moves the odds to 1/5 or 1/9. We need larger pools and we need to make it more interesting, and without going into details I think the longer distances are going to create wagering, more handicapping interest and that’s what this is all about. I hope it’s successful. I really hope the horsemen realize that we don’t have any reasons — personal reasons, selfish reasons — to run a mile and three-eighths, we’re just trying to improve the game and make it better for everyone. And if we can get more wagering, then there’s an argument ultimately for higher purses and so on. So that’s the whole game here, to try and find a way to mix this up to make it more interesting particularly for those larger wagerers that are seeing small pools. And if we can get our pool size up,  then we’ll be able to get some larger wagerers to show some interest.”

SC: What’s your take on the first week of the trial?

JL: “First of all, the horsemen, on the trailer change and adding that 10 as a trailer, that’s been extremely positive for the horsemen and wagerers. I think you’ll see the wagering numbers are up…we weren’t getting any wagering, as I said to you when we discussed this earlier, we were not getting any wagering partly because it doesn’t take much for anyone who puts any effort into it to look at the winning percentages from the nine and the 10 — in particular the 10 — and see that it’s not a good wager. So now that they’re moving [inside] we’ve seen substantially more wagering on the 10 and as you may have noticed the 10 horse has been performing very well out of that spot and a few winners so far. That’s been entirely positive and so we’re excited about that and think it was definitely the right move because it looks like it’s going to address exactly what our issues were, that we were having longshots and not only longshots but, because we’re in a pari-mutuel system, longshots because they don’t have any money wagered on them.  It’s very positive, including from the horsemens’ standpoint who couldn’t care less about wagering and care more about how it’s better for racing to give the 10 horse a chance.

“The distance races, we’re writing one each night, we want there to be 11 horses and we’ve had good success in filling them. I think it’s been positive in the sense that we’re getting the races filled for the most part. For our fans it’s adding an interesting element and I think the fans like it. It’s been holding its own in wagering; our goal is obviously to increase wagering because it’s a more interesting handicapping challenge. Our data won’t show that yet but we think that — this is just surmised on our part and maybe wishful thinking — the wagerers are waiting to get a little data of their own before they dive in at the distance races. Early indications are that it’s positive, it’s holding its own and we’re hoping and thinking as they get a little foundation under it in terms of a wagering perspective that they’ll have more to go on. Granted we’re paying one percent to everyone in the race and we’ve also increased the purses by 25 percent — those races, I believe, have gone from $16,000 to $20,000 — to encourage people to go in them and that seems to be working. We’ve run a number of them now with 11-horse fields but it’s early on and we’re hoping it has a positive wagering impact because I think it does make it a little more interesting. I’m hopeful because we need to continue to look at ways to make this interesting for the wagerer and that’s exactly what you’ve seen in the first week, people aren’t sure what to make of it but I think there will start to be some handicapping angles and two to three weeks from now people will start to come up with more angles on this.

“Good for us for trying. And it’s really based on [the fact that] this does go on elsewhere in the world. We’re not motivated by any particular jurisdiction, just what can we do to increase wagering and one was obviously creating the trailers and the other was trying distances and hopefully just making it more difficult to handicap because our statistics clearly show the percentage of favourites in each race between 1/5 and 3/5…it took me aback when I asked for that at the beginning of the year and started studying it. It goes without saying that you’re not going to increase you volume of wagering when the odds board is sitting at 1/9 or 1/5, so no one wants to bet on them and no one wants to bet against them. The wagering just completely tails off, and you see that and you see people taking some shots at some longshots but no one’s going to jump in, in a big way, when they get those odds. Common sense tells you to put some different parameters on that and get away from the 1/5 shots and 3/5 shots which, as you know, happens pretty regularly at Mohawk Park.”

SC: Do you have any data on early trials of the project?

(Lawson’s reply on November 7.) “The handle on the 1-3/8 mile races are not materially different from other races, with of course a limited number of races so far. What we have noticed (a positive and what we hoped) is the winners paid well in the first three races — with much higher than average payout prices with a 50-1 winner, a 11-1 winner and a 10-1 winner.

“As for the 10 trailer, since November 1 there have been nine races with 10 or 11 horses and the #10 has won two with one second and one third-place finish, as well as the 11 horse has won twice. All told four of nine races have been won by trailers and they have finished in the money (1-2-3) in six of nine races, which is significant. Again, the outcome we were hoping to see…but very early stage.”

(Editor’s note: Thursday’s card at Mohawk featured five races with horses starting in the trailing 10 post. The 10 horse was victorious in one race and finished top five in four of the five races.)

(Standardbred Canada)