TORONTO — Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson can't predict when racing will resume but is prepared to stage events without spectators in order to get horses back running.
Last month, harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park — which had been conducted without fans in the stands — was halted and the start of the 2020 thoroughbred season postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Woodbine's thoroughbred card was slated to begin Saturday.
Earlier this month, Lawson announced the $1-million Queen's Plate, the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown that was scheduled for June 27, had been postponed indefinitely. And on Wednesday during a question-and-answer session with horse people, Lawson said the $1-million Pepsi North America Cup — Canada's richest harness event that was set for June 20 at Mohawk Park — will be rescheduled.
"It's been a very difficult period, it's hard to make decisions that affect peoples' livelihoods," Lawson said. "But we have to listen to the health authorities.
"(On Tuesday), the provincial government came out with an extension to the state of emergency until May 12 and we're bound by that. The city of Toronto has strict stay-at-home guidelines and we agree with that and have to support it. I have sympathy with the predicaments and empathy with the situation many of our stakeholders are in but we have to do the right thing here."
Lawson wouldn't guess when racing might resume, reiterating again his organization will follow the lead of both the provincial and federal governments. But Lawson said Woodbine could act quickly once given the green light.
"The good news is horse racing is one of the few sports and entertainment properties that can operate without spectators," he said. " We're not gate-driven like many sports and entertainment properties, we can run our races when we're allowed to and they will be run without spectators for the foreseeable future.
"If I had to project without using specific dates, we'll look at this in early May and hopefully there's good news that some of the health and essential business restrictions are loosened or will be loosened. Then we'll start planning and hopefully we can look at resuming racing in June or July and I hope I'm not too optimistic in saying that."
Lawson also plans to continue Woodbine's pursuit to provide historical horse racing in order to provide much-needed revenue for the ailing industry.
"Effectively, it's wagering on a historical horse race," Lawson said. "It's pari-mutuel wagering on a race from a databank — I don't know how big the databanks is but let's say its 100,000 races over the last 20 years — that will pop up on the screen and you'll be able to conduct pari-mutuel wagering on a historical horse race."
Lawson said historical horse racing is offered in the U.S. "and has been a big revenue generator." But it's barred in Canada.
"Under the Criminal Code the definition of bet, as it relates to pari-mutuel licences, has been interpreted as an event to happen," Lawson said. "Currently we're not allowed to do it (historical horse racing) without a different interpretation or an amendment to the Criminal Code.
"I think we have to look at finding different ways to generate revenue . . . we're going to feel a hardship in this industry for quite a while. We're working with federal MPs and a group right now has been generated to work with a regulator to see if now is the time to bring back historical horse racing to help this industry at a time when it really needs help."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press