03/20/2003 12:00AM

Putting winter's woes in storage

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - The Woodbine Entertainment Group has some catching up to do as it begins its 2003 Thoroughbred meeting.

A harsh winter has taken its toll both on the Thoroughbred simulcast handle, which is off by approximately 5 percent, and on backstretch construction projects that began during the off season.

David Willmot, president and CEO of Woodbine, points out that the poor weather not only resulted in cancellations at several U.S. tracks but kept customers from coming to Woodbine for the simulcasts. But he doesn't think the weather-related problems will have a lasting effect on the meet.

"It's enough to concern us, but it's too early in the year for it to have any impact or commence any discussions with respect to the purses," he said.

The construction delay concerns the rebuilding of Barns 7 and 7A, which were destroyed by the fire that claimed the lives of 32 horses in August. An investigation into the cause of the fire, which is being headed by William Hiscott of the Ontario Fire Marshall's Office, is ongoing.

The construction delay is "going to cause some stall-juggling challenges for our racing department as we go into the spring," said Willmot.

"We're hoping those barns will be available sometime in the first half of May; we're really trying hard for May 1."

Woodbine also will be retrofitting the other older barns. Work on Barn 1, which will serve as the prototype, is almost complete.

"The shed row's been widened, and there are going to be sprinklers put in," said Willmot. "There will be electrical outlets for each stall, and new wash bays where the tack rooms used to be."

The retrofitting projects will not resume until the conclusion of the Thoroughbred meeting in December, but the upgrading of the six structures in the sales barn area is complete and a brand-new 60-stall barn is scheduled to be finished May 1.

"We'll be spending, over the next three years, over $13 million on the backstretch," said Willmot. "It's not like that's a knee-jerk reaction to the fire - we have spent $5 million on the backstretch in the last two years.

"The sprinklering of every barn, which will be expensive, is not being required of us legally or by any building code. We want to do it."

While the bulk of the work is taking place on the backstretch, two front-side projects also are on the verge of being completed.

The indoor paddock, which opened in 1999, is undergoing some cosmetic changes, and a winner's circle is being constructed on the apron in front of the grandstand.

There is a winner's circle for stakes races, located in the infield. But there has been no regular winner's circle since the new turf course, which encircles the main track, was built in 1994. Postrace ceremonies have been held either on the main track or beside the paddock during bad weather.

"We wanted to bring back a winner's circle closer to the grandstand, where the winners and the winning horse can go, for people to see and interact with," said Willmot.

"The only challenge to that is we'll just have to manage how the winning horse comes across the turf course to the winner's circle. We'll have to make sure that they walk a different path each time."

Turf dreams

A new project could evolve here in the next couple of years, budget permitting.

What is now an enormous collection of dirt at the east end of the track could be transformed into a turf sprint chute. The dirt came from a new pond that Woodbine was required to dig for the control of storm-water runoff.

"It was going to be very expensive to haul the dirt away, and we'd toyed with the idea for a few years of building a turf sprint chute," said Willmot.

The chute, which would extend to the eastern perimeter of the backstretch, could be used for six-furlong races and would allow Woodbine to run races at five and 5 1/2 furlongs, distances that cannot be accommodated by the current turf course configuration.

"If we build this chute we'll be able to run these sprint races right down the outside of the turf course," said Willmot. "We believe we might be able to run 60 or 70 more turf races a year."

Internet wagering

Willmot also looks forward to the long-awaited introduction of Internet wagering.

"We hope that should be available within three to four months," he said.

'We're in testing right now, with the CPMA" - Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency - "on our Internet wagering software. We've developed our own software, that we believe is the most user-friendly."

A new Woodbine-owned and operated teletheater, located on Bay Street in the heart of downtown Toronto's financial district, is scheduled to open in mid-May.

"It's not a traditional teletheater - we want this to be one of the real happening bars in the financial district," Willmot said.

"We don't just want people going there that are going to bet the races - we want this to be a flagship, to display horse racing to the financial community."

AT A GLANCE

WOODBINE

RACING SCHEDULE: Saturday, March 22 through Sunday, Nov. 30. Fridays through Sundays plus Wednesdays beginning May 7; Thursdays beginning June 5; holiday Mondays May 19, June 30, Aug. 4, Sept. 1, Oct. 13. No racing Thursdays July 3, Aug. 7, Sept. 4, Oct. 13 (167 days total)

RACING HIGHLIGHTS: $500,000 Labatt Woodbine Oaks, June 8; $ 1 million Queen's Plate, June 22; $500,000 Breeders' Stakes, Aug. 9; $1 million Atto Mile, Sept. 14; $1.5 million Canadian International, Oct. 19; $750,000 E.P. Taylor Stakes, Oct. 19

POST TIME: 12:55 p.m. except Wednesdays, 6:45 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: Free general; $4 Finish Line Bar; $5 Champions

PARKING: Free general; $8 valet

SLOTS: 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday then open continuously from Friday, 9 a.m. until Monday, 3 a.m. (1700 machines)

LOCATION: Highway 27 and Rexdale Boulevard, Etobicoke, Ont.

PHONE: (416) 675-7223

INTERNET: woodbineentertainment.com