Updated on 01/24/2013 3:55PM

Some details of Woodbine, government agreement revealed; 133-day meet planned

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Michael Burns
Woodbine's agreement with the Ontario government ensures that the Queen's Plate, Woodbine Mile and Canadian International will be run this year.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – At a Woodbine press conference Thursday, which was conducted on an upbeat note but proved short on detail, the Woodbine Entertainment Group and the Ontario Government presented the beginnings of a blueprint under which Thoroughbred racing at Woodbine will operate for the next two seasons.

The Woodbine Entertainment Group announced Wednesday that it had reached a two-year transitional funding agreement with the provincial government, and also a separate agreement in principle with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, that would keep slot machines in operation at its Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks under leasing arrangements.

The 2013 Woodbine racing season, pending Ontario Racing Commission approval, will begin on April 20, with the backstretch opening March 1 and the training track on March 3. Closing day would be Dec. 15.

“We’ll soon be making an application for 133 race dates,” said Nick Eaves, president and CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, “and we anticipate that the average daily overnight purses will be applicable to those paid in 2012.”

Woodbine had applied for 167 racing dates last year, April 6 through Dec. 16, but raced 156 days after eliminating many Thursday cards late in the season to counter a projected year-end purse overpayment. The average daily purse distribution last year was $508,000.

Eaves added that while the Woodbine stakes schedule will be under scrutiny, major races including the Queen’s Plate, Woodbine Mile, and Canadian International will anchor the schedule.

Jim Lawson, the Woodbine Entertainment Group’s chairman of the board; Ted McMeekin, head of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Rural Affairs; and Eaves were on the podium Thursday with attendees that included former cabinet ministers John Wilkinson, Elmer Buchanan, and Doug Snobelen, who had authored a report on a sustainable future for the Ontario racing industry.

“There will be new sources of revenue that can be put into place to support horseracing,” said McMeekin, adding that because negotiations were ongoing with other racetracks “the funds will not be immediately forthcoming and the exact nature of the deals will not yet be revealed.”

The arrangements will not take effect until the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s racetrack slots program, which formerly had designated 10 percent of the profits to the tracks and 10 percent to purses, ends March 31.

“Woodbine Entertainment Group is entirely committed to a partnership with the government,” said Eaves.

“It is important to understand that because the arrangements are transitional in nature, our organization is going to have to look very seriously at change and the way we conduct and do our business.”

To that end, the Woodbine Entertainment Group had been holding off announcing its 2013 racing schedule while continuing its negotiations with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Rural Affairs on the transition plan and with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation regarding the slots program and the possibility of situating a full-scale casino at Woodbine, a project which remains on the drawing board.

Sue Leslie, who has been heavily involved in the battle over racing’s future as president of Ontario’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and as the president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, had mixed feelings on Thursday’s news.

“Obviously  there’s some disappointment for the horsemen, in the loss of race dates,” said Leslie.

“The length of the deal is extremely disappointing. It does not deal with the five-year-breeding cycle, the investments made by breeders, owners and racetrack operators."

Under the recommendations from the transitional panel all revenues from pari-mutuels would go toward purses.

“I have concerns about the racetracks, and their operating funds,” said Leslie, who also noted that Ontario’s ruling Liberal Party soon will have a new leader and perhaps a new outlook which could benefit future negotiations.

“Hopefully, with a new regime, we can make a case and work out a longer deal,” said Leslie.

“Unless horse racing is integrated into the province’s long-term gaming strategy we’re going to have a difficult time going forward.”