03/21/2002 12:00AM

Sustaining the boom won't be easy


TORONTO - When you're coming off a season of record-breaking handle, what do you do for an encore?

The Woodbine Entertainment Group, proprietors of Woodbine and nearby Mohawk Raceway, reported an overall handle of $1.35 billion last year, an 11 percent increase from 2000.

And while David Willmot, the company's chief executive officer, describes that performance as "sensational" he is cautious when addressing the track's prospects heading into Saturday's opening of the 2002 Woodbine Thoroughbred meeting.

"We're seeing softness in wagering right now that we haven't seen in quite some time, and we're concerned about it," said Willmot. Handle on Woodbine's live Standardbred meet and Thoroughbred simulcasting over the first 2 1/2 months of the year is down by more than 4 percent.

"It's not bad on the harness side - we're running about level - but we're off on our Thoroughbred racing quite significantly year-to-date. We're down as much as 20 percent on Gulfstream, and down as much as 15 percent on Fair Grounds. But we understand other jurisdictions aren't betting those tracks - particularly Gulfstream - very well either."

Willmot hopes the decline is not symptomatic of a larger problem.

"There's an old theory that horse racing is slow into recession and slow out of recession, and I think maybe that's what we're seeing," he said. "There appears to be some consumer spending issue right now.

"So do I think we can achieve the betting levels of last year? At this stage, I think it's going to be a real challenge.

"We're going to have to hope that when our live product opens, with the continued development or our distribution system and the continued modernization of our plant, that wagering is stronger."

Offtrack wagering here has been on a steady rise, taking its first steps with the introduction of teletheaters in the fall of 1993, spurred onward with the advent of HorsePlayer Interactive with its automated telephone account betting in the spring of 1997, and soaring following the introduction of The Racing Network Canada in the summer of 1999.

But Willmot still sees considerable potential for growth, in the form of Internet wagering.

Last year Woodbine had begun experimenting with a concept it dubbed PC TAB, a cross between Internet wagering, which is not permitted under existing regulations, and telephone betting.

"It was kind of a compromise," said Willmot. "At the front end, for the consumer, it was Internet wagering in terms of the presentation and the way they could bet on a PC.

"But in order to meet the laws, the digital tones of the computer had to be converted to telephone tones so they could still call it telephone account wagering.

"Basically what that proved to the CPMA [Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency] was that if it looks like, feels like, smells like Internet wagering to the customer why are we playing this game at the back end?"

With the CPMA now on their side and a change in regulations looming, Willmot hopes true Internet wagering will be up and running within four or five months.

"In our focus groups with our bettors - particularly our big bettors - they find the telephone system slow and ponderous, and we acknowledge that," said Willmot. "They want to be able to have a much quicker form of making bets, which they can do on the Internet.

"The telephone account betting system will get better, because it's still in the early stages, but I think the Internet wagering certainly will help the distribution system.

"Where it's all going to go in the future is toward the wireless technology. Ultimately we hope people will be able to bet, with wireless devices, right through the Internet right into the tote system."

The appeal of telephone and Internet wagering is inextricably linked with television, a fact proved by the dramatic surge in phone wagering, which has come in concert with the availability of horse racing on the airwaves.

"It's a direct correlation," said Willmot. "And again, we'll be trying to get TRN on more platforms."

TRN Canada currently is available via satellite, on Bell ExPressVu, which is available nationally, and via digital cable on both the Rogers and Cogeco networks, which are regional providers.

Willmot said the company is negotiating with Star Choice, a satellite television system, and trying to get other cable systems to carry TRN Canada.

After a one-year hiatus, live Woodbine Thoroughbred racing also will be returning on Headline Sports, which is available via cable television, with full coverage of Sunday cards beginning March 31.

But while the focus may seem to be on off-track wagering and television, Woodbine's ontrack crowd, which contributes about one-third of the total handle, continues to benefit from the company's success.

A pair of giant full-color video display boards, one of which will display wagering information and the other live video coverage, will be unveiled Saturday. The price tag for the set-up was approximately $3 million (Canadian).

"We think it's going to pull people who are inside the plant back outside," said Willmot. "It should add a lot of excitement to the live racing viewing experience."

A complete $5 million renovation of the third floor of the grandstand, one of the last refuges of the smoking fraternity, is under way. While the work will not be totally completed, the area will be open Saturday.

"It will be very bit as nice as the second floor," said Willmot, referring to the space that was completely refurbished before the 2000 meeting.

Meanwhile, the ontrack slot machine operation continues to hum, with Woodbine grossing $332.7 million and Mohawk $113.5 million through the first three quarters of the fiscal year, which winds up at the end of this month. Ten percent goes to WEG and 10 percent to the purse account.

So it's no wonder Willmot also looks forward to the new Thoroughbred season in his other guise, as the master of the racing and breeding operation at his nearby Kinghaven Farm.

"As someone who's been in the business a long time and seen the ups and downs, I'm excited about the health and future prospects of racing here in Ontario," said Willmot. "And, I'm prepared to put my money where my mouth is.

"I'm breeding 30 mares this year, which is probably double what I bred just four years ago. I'm breeding to all sorts of top stallions; my stud fees will be well over $1 million this year."