Woodbine CEO sends letter to city of Toronto asking for their support to allow racing

·3 min read

TORONTO — Woodbine Entertainment is lobbying Toronto Mayor John Tory and the city's medical officer of health for assistance in allowing horse racing to go as scheduled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, horses can train at Woodbine Racetrack but not race under the province’s grey lockdown COVID-19 restriction.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city of Toronto's medical officer of health, has said “data does not support” moving the city into a less restrictive red zone but added talks continue with Queen's Park about lessening the situation to allow for outdoor activities such as patio dining and outdoor fitness classes.

In a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson asked both Tory and de Villa to support his organization's request for the Ontario government to allow live racing without spectators during a grey lockdown.

"It poses no greater risk in transmitting the virus than when training horses," Lawson wrote. "Live horse racing without spectators involves the same people as training and only requires a limited number of additional people (broadcast operators, officials) to execute.

"It is also important to note that we operate live racing primarily outside and have very limited (to essential personnel only) and controlled access to all indoor areas like the paddock where essential staff are indoor in a large open-air building, for under 12 minutes, and fully following all COVID-19 Prevention Protocols."

Lawson didn't immediately return a message seeking comment. An official from Tory's office confirmed Friday evening it had received Lawson's letter and was reviewing it with Toronto Public Health and the province.

Woodbine's 2021 thoroughbred card is scheduled to begin April 17 and Lawson said a delay could be catastrophic to the track.

"We already have 1,190 horses (a record number for this time of year) stabled on the Woodbine backstretch and expect hundreds more over the coming weeks," he wrote. "If we are not able to start our season as scheduled on April 17, many of these horses will be shipped to the United States which will result in the loss of thousands of jobs in Toronto."

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Woodbine to cancel harness racing for about two months and start the thoroughbred card later than scheduled. Lawson estimated that resulted in about a $100-million wagering handle shortfall and no fans at either Woodbine Racetrack or Woodbine Mohawk Park forced the permanent layoff of 500 to 1,000 employees.

As a result, Lawson said the pandemic cost his organization more than $30 million in 2020.

In his letter, Lawson noted live harness racing has been running at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, Ont. (Halton Region) since Feb. 18, without incident. Halton Region remains in the less restricted red-control level.

"In fact, dating back to June of last year when the Government of Ontario included horse racing in its Phase 1 of the reopening of the provincial economy, we have not had a single case of on-site transmission of the virus at Woodbine Mohawk Park and only one transmission at Woodbine Racetrack," Lawson wrote.

"We are making this request as it is critically important for welfare of the horses, the sustainability of the industry, and the thousands of jobs in Toronto that our racing supports. The latest lockdown that suspended our racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park resulted in a fair number of horses and trainers taking their business to the United States and we have only recently started to see some of them return, while others may never return."

Lawson reiterated his assurance that racing without spectators is as safe as training horses.

"Finally, we would not be asking for your support if there was a heightened health risk to our employees or horse people," he said. "We have demonstrated over the last year that we are committed to the health and safety of all our stakeholders and are fully supportive of the Government’s efforts in the fight against COVID-19."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press