03/30/2010 11:00PM

Woodbine's '09 figures will be tough to match


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - There have been some discouraging signals for the Woodbine Entertainment Group this year, with simulcast handles on both breeds down and the Standardbreds hit with a 15 percent purse cut effective April 1.

But Nick Eaves, who currently is president and chief operating officer for WEG and will succeed David Willmot as chief executive officer following the annual board of directors meeting on June 4, is optimistic heading into Friday's opening day of the Thoroughbred meeting.

"We were very pleased with last year's Thoroughbred meeting," said Eaves, noting that the handle on live racing from all sources showed an increase of some 7 percent.

"That will be tough to replicate, but we're hoping we'll be able to capitalize on the momentum we had."

Eaves cited Woodbine's partnership with Television Games Network, which began last summer, as an important contributor to the health of the local Thoroughbred game.

And WEG will continue to explore avenues of exposure in the United States, including the acceptance of third-party account-wagering operations provided that the terms are right.

The province of Quebec, which recently opened to Woodbine's HorsePlayer Interactive wagering service after the Standardbred racing industry there shut down last year, also will contribute.

But the most potent cavalry is on the distant horizon, with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. preparing to install 1,000 more slot machines here in an area expected to open early in 2011.

"It's great news," Eaves said. "It's an expansion for which there has been customer demand for years."

With the planning stage continuing, Eaves said he cannot put a dollar figure on Woodbine's contribution to the 16,000-square-foot slots expansion, which will be directly joined to the existing 57,000-square-foot area.

"We provide the space, which has to be structurally sound and has to support the mechanical and electrical needs which the OLG requires," Eaves said. "Then, the OLG finishes that space."

When all is said and spun, Woodbine will be host to some 3,000 slot machines. And, with Eaves pegging the current win per machine at $850 per day with 10 percent going to WEG and the same amount to the horsemen for purses, the implications are enormous.

"We're not necessarily expecting to maintain that," Eaves said. "But we are expecting significantly incremental business next year."

In the meantime, the slots project will have a physical effect on several of the existing racing-related areas.

Minor downsizing of the Favorites restaurant and Finish Line bar areas on the second floor are necessary in order to accommodate a new escalator. Woodbine is aiming to complete the escalator project in time for the Queen's Plate, which will be run July 4.

Hoofbeats Lounge, the bar area and patio with a trackside view that had been the only bastion for the horseplayer since the opening of the slots area in March 2000, closed its wagering area last December.

"I think the original concept was the right one, giving the slot players some exposure to racing and the ability to bet on it ," said Eaves.

"But what Hoofbeats became was the location of choice for an existing group of our customers. Now, the space is needed to accommodate slot machines and our revised food and beverage requirements."

While the slots area will be Woodbine's major capital expenditure this year, the backstretch did benefit from the retrofitting of four existing barns at an estimated $1 million apiece.

A new stand for the training-track clockers and its attendant indoor area for workout watchers also was constructed.

But Eaves had little concrete news to report on the major long-term project, Woodbine Live!, a conglomeration including a hotel, live entertainment, bars and restaurants, retail, and housing complex that was first announced in 2006.

"It's a big and tricky project, which is continuing to move along," Eaves said. "To somebody on the outside, it might look that there's not much happening.

"But we continue to make progress with the city with what we need to do zoning-wise, with property tax and financial incentive issues."