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Woodbine CEO desperately worried about the future of the industry

By Steve Buffery / Toronto Sun

You can hear the strain in Jim Lawson’s voice as the Woodbine Entertainment CEO struggles to come to grips with what is happening to his industry as the COVID-19 pandemic creates havoc across the world.
 
Mohawk Raceway has recently been shut down, putting hundreds of standardbred track workers out of work. And now the thoroughbred season at Woodbine, originally slated to begin on April 18, has been postponed indefinitely, putting even more track workers — many of whom have little other means — in a jobless situation. Lawson is worried about the future of his industry if the shutdown and postponement goes on for too long.
 
“There’s just no money right now and that’s the problem,” Lawson told the Toronto Sun on Wednesday. “We’re working with the government on a relief fund, but we’re putting so many grooms and hot walkers and everyone else out of work. And despite the perception that horse owners are wealthy, they really aren’t. There’s a very small handful of owners that are wealthy and the rest of them are hard-working people. And they can’t make this work without any sort of funding. And the longer this goes on, the bigger threat it is to this entire industry.
 
“Hopefully we can get it under a control a little bit because I don’t think, like a lot of industries, the horse racing industry is going to be able to tolerate (a shut down) for that long,” added Kevin Attard, one of Woodbine’s leading trainers, pointing out that many of the track workers live pay cheque to pay cheque and many of the owners are small-time business people who probably would would walk away from the sport if they face financial insecurity.
 
“It comes down to feeding your family or feeding your hobby,” Attard said. “Right now, you can see the writing on the wall.”
 
Lawson said the decisions to postpone Woodbine and close Mohawk were obviously the right ones given the government decrees for social distancing. But they were, nevertheless, incredibly difficult to make. Gut-wrenching in fact.
 
“You ultimately have to be able to look in the mirror and say that people’s lives are more important than people’s livelihoods and that’s really hard for people to accept,” said Lawson, who is the former chairman of the Canadian Football League, as well as a businessman and lawyer. “You have to just try to do the right thing.
 
“I’ve got a very supportive board and I have to make these decisions and it’s terribly weighing,” Lawson added, his voice cracking. “The decision to close down Mohawk, it was like: ‘Wow, I understand the hardships that are going to be created here.’ ”
 
Adding to the misery: There is a logistics crisis brewing now at the Woodbine backstretch. Track workers are scrambling to find a place to eat. The backstretch kitchen, which is privately operated, has been closed despite the fact that, according to Lawson, there are about 200 workers living in the dorms at Woodbine — dorms that don’t have kitchens. And many of those workers, if not most, don’t own cars or even phones.
 
“That has been a very live topic the last couple of days,” said Lawson. “We’re working with the (restaurant) operator there. And here’s the problem. This again is unlike any other circumstance. You don’t have people driving up in cars (at the backstretch kitchen), you have people lining up and congregating in large groups. So we’re trying to help the people out and we’re trying to get the restaurant to do take-out service. And we’re trying to do that while respecting social distancing. So as long as we can work it so that they’re not all sitting at tables together, we think we can manage it. But they do need that restaurant.”
 
Having no restaurant open in the backstretch has become a huge hardship, Woodbine chaplain Shawn Kennedy said.
 
“I can’t get a straight answer as to why it is closed, but I do know this will send people who live here out into the local community, (Fortinos, Woodbine Mall, etc), which is exactly what people are being told NOT to do. For some, there is no hot meal for the day, as this is their only source for food. There was no warning, either. People weren’t given a chance to prepare. People at the bottom always get crapped on first and worst.”
 
There’s also the problem of the track workers who are returning to Woodbine from working at tracks in the U.S. south, but now have nowhere to go. Like everyone else, these workers have to self-isolate for 14 days and are not allowed into the dorms until that period ends. Again, many possess little money and have nowhere to go. Yet another problem that weighs on Lawson big-time.
 
“To bring them into this small enclave of people runs right in the face of self-isolation,” he said. “It’s a very awkward situation. We want to help those people and we’re trying to. But we’re not about to have them room with each other after they come back from the U.S. We have to respect the government requirements.”
 
The horse racing industry in Ontario has dug out of some major challenges over the years — including the cancellation of the slots revenue-sharing program in 2012, which nearly decimated the breeding industry. Not being able to race, however, could be the final blow in this province. Thoroughbred horse racing continued at Gulfstream Park on Wednesday, with the horse track owners citing the need to care for the horses. But Hallandale Beach, Fla., city officials are exploring whether Gulfstream’s activities violate Broward County’s executive order to close non-essential businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic. There were reports that Gulfstream threatened to sue the city if they were forced to close.
 
Lawson wishes he could wave a magic wand and put everything back to normal in Ontario, but unlike Gulfstream officials, he’s not about to go against the wishes of the three levels of government that have called for serious social distancing. And he’s also not about to arbitrarily throw out a new start date for Woodbine.
 
“It’s so hard,” he said. “You don’t want to give false promises. One could come out today and say we’re targeting July 1 and training will resume in earnest on June 1. If that was 100% true, I’d take that bet. Sign me up. But I don’t know if we’ll be there and that’s what makes this so hard.
 
“I know the Kentucky Derby has been rescheduled for September and maybe they’re right (to set a date). But I don’t think we’re even in a position to say the Queen’s Plate is going to move to September,” Lawson added. “The only thing I can say is hopefully if everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing, including us, if in three or four weeks from now if it feels like our province and our country is getting ahead of the curve, then maybe there’s a sign of optimism.”

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Photo by Michael Burns
 

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