04/02/2008 11:00PM

New Woodbine season brings many changes

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Heading into last year's Woodbine meeting, the racetrack itself was the center of attention.

Polytrack made its debut here on Aug. 30, 2006, and experienced problems as the year wore on, coming under particular fire in the closing stages of the meet.

But, after undergoing some changes in composition last spring and summer, the Polytrack finished up 2007 in good order and Woodbine has legitimate hopes that concern over the surface can become a thing of the past when this year's 167-day meeting begins on Saturday.

"Part of the problem originally was that expectations were so high, and we played a part in setting those expectations," said Nick Eaves, president and chief operating officer of the Woodbine Entertainment Group. "But the feedback this spring has been that the track opened up in substantially the same condition as when we closed it at the end of last year. That's pretty encouraging."

Taking the spotlight off the racing surface would be a welcome relief for Eaves and would allow him to focus his energies on a number of new initiatives here, including holding six new Breeders' Cup Win and You're In races; working with the government to crack down on illegal wagering sites; and beginning major construction on the $1 billion "Woodbine Live" entertainment complex.

Eaves, 39, a native of London, England, earned an honors Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and political science from Western University in London, Ontario. He joined Woodbine to coordinate the company's teletheater launch in 1994 and has overseen a variety of departments, including marketing and business development.

Eaves was promoted to his current position in December 2006 and has been in charge of day-to-day operations since then.

"Everything reports in to me," said Eaves. "On the day-to-day issues, I'm involved with all of the key ones."

Eaves's involvement on the racing front will be more important than ever since his boss, David Willmot, who is WEG's chairman and chief executive officer, is recuperating from a mild heart attack.

"We're looking forward to a really extraordinary '08 meeting," said Eaves, citing Woodbine's participation in the Breeders' Cup's Win and You're In program as the most exciting development.

The Sept. 7 Woodbine Mile, the Sept. 14 Natalma, and the Oct. 4 Canadian International, E.P. Taylor, Nearctic, and Summer are the Woodbine races that will earn winners an automatic berth in a Breeders' Cup event.

"For the Breeders' Cup to select Woodbine as one of their challenge locations is a huge validation of the racing program here," said Eaves.

The Win and You're In events will bring increased exposure to Woodbine, with ESPN scheduled to televise the Canadian International Day program.

An expanded television audience also is guaranteed for the Queen's Plate as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which stopped televising the race 10 years ago, has signed back on for a four-year agreement.

In recent years, the Queen's Plate was available on cable and satellite channels with restricted accessibility.

Lacking the flair of television coverage but far more noteworthy to the day-to-day racing scene here are a number of rule changes, mostly involving medication issues, passed by the Ontario Racing Commission this winter.

The most dramatic ruling includes an "owner responsibility" rule under which any horse testing positive for a Class 1, 2, or 3 medication would automatically be ineligible to race for 90 days.

Previously, an owner could transfer such a horse to another horseman if his trainer were suspended for a positive test.

"Certainly, it's a rule we've been supportive of," said Eaves. "Owner accountability is fundamentally fair. And, it should result in the bettor being more confident in our product."

That Thoroughbred simulcast product has been in reasonably good shape this winter.

Wagering on Thoroughbred simulcasts has been up by about 3 percent over the first three months of the year, while Standardbred wagering, both live and simulcast, has continued to slump.

"The wagering growth on the Thoroughbred side hasn't been up as much as last year's full-year trend showed," said Eaves. "But in a challenging time, based on what's happening in the industry and what's happening in the economy, to be showing growth on the Thoroughbred side of things I think is extraordinary."

Eaves continues to stress that further potential for growth exists if the Canadian government takes action against illegal wagering sites, both offshore and within the country.

"I would certainly consider it one of the key issues that we face; it hasn't gone anywhere," said Eaves. "We feel strongly it's illegal for residents of Canada to bet over the Internet in an unlicensed jurisdiction. But, we have a government that isn't enforcing those laws, and until recently wasn't even suggesting that was something they were considering.

"At least they've now come out and said that they're getting a sense that this issue is larger they once thought and, perhaps, they're going to do something about it."

In a move designed to ensure that one of its bigger players remains in the fold, Woodbine has annexed part of the media communications office on the sixth floor, where the press and stewards already are situated, and constructed a private office.

"We're setting it up at the request of one particular customer who has been a loyal supporter of Woodbine," said Eaves. "We work as closely as we can with big players, some of whom have their own needs."

Although Eaves did not wish to name the "particular customer," the new area will be the preserve of Mike Singh, a former owner and well-known high roller.

The furnished room will include seven new wall-mounted flat-screen televisions and two mutuel machines. State-of-the-art Amtote machines were introduced early this January at all WEG properties and represent an improvement over the previous version.

"In general, they've been received really well," said Eaves. "In terms of the features these machines provide, like horse names and live odds, we've had terrific feedback."

Meanwhile, the local landscape will be altered significantly with the long-awaited advent of Woodbine Live, the enormous hotel-entertainment-retail venue that will be situated on 25 acres of Woodbine-owned land bordering the racetrack property.

The tentative first step already has been taken as construction is well under way on a 142-stall Standardbred barn just off the clubhouse turn. Eaves hopes the project, which he estimates will cost $12 million, will be completed late this summer. It will also include a 32-stall dual-breed barn that will serve as a detention and quarantine facility.

Once that site is up and running, the old Standardbred barn, just off the west entrance to the grandstand, can be torn down to make way for the first stage of Woodbine Live.

"It's such a large project; there are just so many bits and pieces to it," said Eaves, noting that a number of regulatory hurdles have had to be cleared since Woodbine and its partner, the Baltimore-based The Cordish Company, first announced the project in the summer of 2005.

"We're aiming for a start to construction before the end of the calendar year," he said. "The main 1.5-million-square-foot live entertainment district - including cinema, restaurants, bars, cafes, retail - would be the first piece of the plan.

"The large-format retail mass - which we think, based on tenant interest, will likely be leased fairly quickly - could begin at the same time."

Farther down the road, Eaves is optimistic that gaming expansion will be part of Woodbine Live. Woodbine currently has some 1,950 slot machines in its first-floor area.

"The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation has been tasked with identifying revenue opportunities, and is looking seriously at this market," said Eaves.

Overall, gaming revenue in the province is down, mainly because of the border markets, Windsor and Niagara Falls in particular. Competition in Buffalo and Detroit and the strength of the Canadian dollar have contributed to dramatic declines in slots revenue at Fort Erie and Windsor Raceway and affected business at provincially run casinos in Niagara Falls and Windsor.

"Woodbine is the largest, by quite a bit, net contributor of gaming revenue back to the OLGC and the province," Eaves said.