06/22/2001 12:00AM

Woodbine on Plate Day? It's all good


ELMONT, N.Y. - With the addition of slot machines to its operation at Woodbine last year, the Ontario Jockey Club, as it was then known, experienced dramatic growth. Purses for the combined Thoroughbred and harness meetings shot up from $95 million to $145 million, and there were countless other illustrations of progress.

Has the trend continued? Are gains still being made? Can those who dared to gamble on change still recommend the formula? As Canadians await Sunday's 142nd running of the $1 million Queen's Plate, the country's premier horse race, David Willmot, president and chief executive officer of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, is pleased to be able to say yes to all three questions.

"We're not up dramatically over last year's substantial gains," Willmot said, "but our on-track business is up about 5 percent and there are not many jurisdictions in North America that can report increases. We've also experienced notable gains in our distribution: telephone account wagering and home television. In a bit more than two years, our telephone accounts have gone from zero to $60 million. Perhaps most important, confidence in racing has been re-established. New horse farms are being built and membership has increased substantially in the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society."

Discussing the change in names for the organization, Willmot said that Ontario Jockey Club no longer represented the company or its mission.

"We're certainly not a club," he noted. "We're a business, and we're in business to make money. Much of our business is Standardbred. Woodbine is the only track I know that offers live Thoroughbred and live harness racing on the same day. The Standardbreds race on a track inside the dirt track for Thoroughbreds. It was formerly the seven-furlong grass track. Many people are surprised to learn that Woodbine is open 365 days a year, from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Our future plans call for the establishment of entertainment facilities on the grounds, including a multiplex cinema theater, night clubs, restaurants, and hotels.

"During the past year," Willmot continued, "six million people visited Woodbine. We've taken down all our fencing because we want to make it as pleasant and inviting as possible for them to come here. A lot of people come to play the slots. For the most part they're not interested in racing but they provide a buzz to the scene, and it is good to see crowds of people at the track again."

Willmot emphasized that when his group lobbied for the installation of slot machines, it urged that the slots be restricted to racetracks, in part because of their long experience in the gambling field. He said the slots wouldn't have been as effective here if there were competing slots in the area.