04/04/2012 1:08PM

Woodbine pressing ahead in 2012 as uncertainty looms on slots


ETOBICOKE, Ontario – It has been a winter of discontent for the horse racing industry in Ontario, with the Ontario government having directed the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to cancel the province’s racetrack slots program by March 31, 2013.

Racetrack slots operations at Fort Erie and the Standardbred racetracks in Windsor and Sarnia will close at the end of this month, and the province’s other racetracks have received their site-holder agreement termination notices.

“It’s obviously very serious for the industry, and potentially very serious for Woodbine,” said Nick Eaves, president and chief executive officer of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, which owns and operates Woodbine and the Standardbred racetrack Mohawk Raceway in nearby Campbellville.

“There simply are not answers, in terms of exactly how the partnership between the industry and the province, through the OLG, will look like after the first of April 2013.

“What is beyond doubt is that the slot operations at Woodbine and Mohawk are the most successful, because they are the most profitable, of all the gaming operations in the province.

“That’s obviously a pretty important starting point in our company’s commitment to work with OLG. Our focus is to make sure that coming out of this we have a healthy and prosperous horse racing business, which continues to thrive.”

The prospect of a potential white knight, in the form of a full-fledged casino at Woodbine, has been mentioned in various media reports, but is nowhere close to being a reality.

“All of this came out of an announcement by the OLG that they are going to ‘modernize’ their gaming system, with their core objective to be generating an additional $1.3 billion dollars of revenue by 2017-2018,” Eaves said.

“One of the ways they said they were going to do that was with a casino in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area].”

“We’ve long held the view that the logical place for a GTA casino is at Woodbine. There is substantially a casino here already, and the market demand for a full casino with more slots and table games is undeniable.

“It would be the quickest and most cost-effective way of having a GTA casino. We have been and will be continuing to advocate that position.”

In the meantime, Eaves stresses that it will be business as usual on the racing front here this season.

“As it stands now, we are not intending to make changes to our racing program,” Eaves said. “Our approach is to continue to run our business the way we have over the last number of years, focusing on the highest quality of racing, putting on the best show we possibly can for our customers.

“Our ability to do that this year, in terms of at least our financial arrangements, will be unchanged.”

But with the slots here contributing approximately 50 percent of the purses, some Ontario breeders and owners have been looking beyond this season.

“I think we’ve all heard stories of breeders moving their mares to other jurisdictions, mares they intended to have in Ontario based on the caliber of our program, Eaves said. “Decisions are being made which will be negative to the Ontario racing business, because owners and breeders are rightly saying that they don’t have enough certainty about what the Ontario business is going to look like down the road.”