04/13/2017 9:56AM

Marathon Woodbine meet starts Saturday with focus on turf racing

Michael Burns
Woodbine had a strong season year in 2016 and hopes to that momentum going in 2017.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – After a strong 2016 campaign, Woodbine will look to maintain that momentum in 2017 when its 133-day meet begins Saturday. The 10-race opening-day card attracted 80 entries.

Woodbine last season posted gains over 2015 in both all-sources handle and field size and set handle records for three signature race days: the Queen’s Plate, Woodbine Mile, and Canadian International cards.

“A lot of things went well,” said Jim Lawson, chief executive of Woodbine Entertainment Group. “I think it’s no secret in this industry that horse supply is a problem, not just in Ontario but throughout North America. I’m proud of our guys. They did a good job. Our field sizes last year were up a tick, and that’s a tough thing to do in this environment.”

The meet will be highlighted by the 158th running of the $1 million Queen’s Plate on July 2. New this year is a Queen’s Plate festival July 1-2 that will tie in celebrations for Canada’s 150th birthday. Lawson said new initiatives like the Queen’s Plate festival and twilight racing, which will see nine Friday cards during the summer featuring a 4 p.m. Eastern first post, are designed to introduce new fans to the sport.

“One of the reasons that horse supply is a problem is we need to attract new owners and new investors into the sport,” Lawson said. “We have to work hard at exposing the sport of horse racing to a whole new group of people because that’s the only way we’re going to attract new ownership.”

While the purse of the Queen’s Plate remains the same, cuts were made to a number of listed stakes. The cuts included both the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile and Grade 1 Canadian International, which saw their purses lowered from $1 million to $800,000. Four stakes races were eliminated from the stakes schedule, while the Trillium Stakes, which was previously an overnight stakes, was added to the schedule. Lawson said the cuts were necessary due to budgetary constraints but added that Woodbine has managed to maintain overnight purses at levels similar to 2016.

“We have reductions in budget throughout the organization,” he said. “I can assure you that we’re not achieving efficiencies solely through cutting purses. We’re making many, many other changes to make sure we can continue to sustain ourselves. It was a balancing act, and the real balance was we’ve got to make some budget cuts ... let’s protect our local horsemen and our overnights as best we can because that’s who we need to be loyal to to answer that horse-supply question.”

Woodbine significantly increased its number of turf races in 2016 by running on the grass into late November while also introducing a series of clockwise turf races. Lawson said the track is evaluating whether to continue clockwise turf racing in 2017 but added that horseplayers can expect the track to run as many races as possible on turf this season.

“There’s no question that field sizes are generally larger for us when we’re running on the grass,” he said. “Our numbers show that people like wagering on grass races more than on Tapeta. It’s weather-contingent, but we’re going to do our best to extend the turf season at Woodbine into November again this year.”

Woodbine will have a first post of 1 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Monday cards throughout the meet. Friday racing will begin April 21 and will also feature a 1 p.m. first post. Starting July 7, Woodbine will introduce twilight racing on Fridays until Sept. 1. Wednesday racing will kick off May 17 with a 6:45 p.m. first post.

The opening-day feature is the $100,000 Jacques Cartier Stakes, which will kick off Woodbine’s 98-race stakes schedule.

Passion for Action won the 2016 Jacques Cartier Stakes and will defend his title Saturday. Passion for Action has made one start this season, finishing sixth in a five-furlong turf sprint at Gulfstream Park on March 26. Trainer Mike De Paulo said the five-furlong distance was too short for the 5-year-old son of Speightstown.

“We ran him five-eighths, and he didn’t really run a bad race,” he said. “He got beat three lengths or something.”

Other key contenders in the six-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up on the Tapeta include Stacked Deck, Pink Lloyd, and Commute, the top three finishers from last November’s Grade 2 Kennedy Road Stakes.

◗ Woodbine television personalities Jim Bannon and Jim Mazur will host a “Winning at Woodbine” handicapping seminar Saturday on the second-floor grandstand at 11 a.m. The first 150 attendees will receive a free handicapping booklet.