04/10/2014 12:37PM

Woodbine's marathon meet opens with 10-race card

Michael Burns
Horses take to the track for training at Woodbine on Thursday.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Tumultuous times and a harsh winter in Ontario have given way to a wet spring, but a sure sign that the tide has turned is the return of live racing to Woodbine on Saturday with a 10-race card of mostly shorter sprints that attracted 87 entries.

At 133 days, the meet is the same length as last year, and the average daily purse distribution of $508,000 is roughly the same as in 2013.

Racing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Eastern every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and on holidays until Dec. 7. Wednesday racing, with a post time of 6:45 p.m., begins May 28 but will not be conducted after long weekends July 2, Aug. 6, Sept. 3, and Oct. 15.

The first of Woodbine’s three big days will be the Queen’s Plate card July 6, when three graded turf stakes will be staged, along with the 155th running of the $1 million Plate.

The $1 million Woodbine Mile, won by Horse of the Year Wise Dan in each of the past two years, tops the excellent Sept. 14 card. Leading California turf miler Winning Prize is being pointed toward the Grade 1 Mile, according to Neil Drysdale, the most successful trainer in the race’s history.

The Grade 1, $1 million Canadian International heads the lucrative Oct. 19 program, which includes the Grade 1 E.P. Taylor and the Grade 2 Nearctic Stakes.

Nick Eaves, Woodbine’s president and chief executive, said he’s looking forward to the return of racing following a chaotic period that saw the abrupt end of the Slots at Racetracks Program in the province last April. The Ontario government has made up for the shortfall in revenue from the program by pledging $500 million to the racing industry for purses over the next five years.

“The last two years have been really tough on everybody,” Eaves said. “Last year was particularly difficult, but I think we’re going into this Thoroughbred season with momentum. The province’s partnership plan gives us some stability in terms of what the model looks like over the next five years. I think the fact that we’re offering over $500,000 a day over a 133-day schedule gives people some confidence that there’s going to be an enduring racing program here.”

Woodbine’s Polytrack has been in use since it was installed in 2006. Eaves said there is no plan to replace it with a dirt surface, as Del Mar and Keeneland are doing, but he was noncommittal about keeping it in the long term.

“We’re going to look at it intently over this season,” Eaves said. “There’s no debating the safety of synthetic tracks, and ours is no exception. When The Jockey Club released its most recent database report, injuries on our Polytrack were half the industry average. It’s been performing well. Certainly, now that the track is 7 or 8 years old, we have to continue to monitor whether it’s performing as well as we need for it to.

“At the end of last season, the track was underperforming. We put some oil into it to try and address that. I think that worked, but we’ve got to make sure that it’s meeting everybody’s expectations. The difference for us, as compared to Keeneland and Del Mar, is that we race through extreme and varied conditions. We need a track that can perform through those significant swings, but we have to make sure that it performs consistently through those swings. Obviously, it hasn’t all the time.”

Woodbine began the 2013 meet with a 2 percent takeout reduction on win betting to 14.95 percent, which remains in place for this year.

The Jackpot Hi Five, introduced last fall, is back. It requires bettors to select the first five finishers in order on the last race of each card, and the entire pool pays out only when there is a single winning ticket. The tricky wager has a 20-cent minimum and a 15 percent takeout.

There are several new wrinkles in the Ontario-sired program this year. The $20,000 and $40,000 non-winners of three claimers have been combined with non-winners of three Ontario-sired allowances. In these races, the Ontario-sired horses do not run with a claiming tag and are eligible for a new 40 percent purse bonus that most Ontario-sired runners will earn when they place in the top five positions in open company. The exception is Ontario-sired horses who were once claimed and are now competing for less than $20,000. Maiden-claiming races for $25,000 Ontario-sired runners have been eliminated.

Luis Contreras heads a capable jockey colony that includes Eurico Rosa Da Silva, Patrick Husbands, Jesse Campbell, Justin Stein, and Emma-Jayne Wilson, who is riding at Keeneland on Saturday. Chantal Sutherland-Kruze has rejoined the local scene after riding in Southern California the past few years.

Perennial leading trainer Mark Casse is likely to top the standings again. Bob Tiller led the standings after opening weekend in 2013 and finished a clear second at meet’s end.

◗ Jim Mazur will conduct a one-hour handicapping seminar at 11 a.m. Saturday on the second floor east, where copies of his Woodbine handicapping guides will be given out.