There was a noticeable heaviness in Jim Lawson’s voice Thursday morning as he spoke of trying to help Canada’s horse racing industry navigate the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
Major thoroughbred issues were in his thoughts with the Woodbine backstretch open and Opening Day approaching, but as of Thursday, the most pressing concern for the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) was whether to continue racing standardbreds at Woodbine Mohawk Park. About an hour before the March 19 harness card went to post, WEG made the decision to postpone racing until further beginning March 20. Until that moment, Woodbine was one of the few tracks in North America still racing. Lawson knew not everyone agreed with that initial call to continue on — and even he had some self-doubt about it at the time.
“I’m dealing with 2,000 people, employees at Woodbine, and another huge number in the backstretch and, to a large extent, have been the industry spokesperson on all of this… and, quite frankly, I am feeling the pressures, socially and otherwise, to make sure we’re doing the right thing and it’s challenging,” Lawson said. “I’m doing my very best under the circumstances, but it’s weighing… there’s a heavy burden on myself.”
Lawson said it’s too early to speculate whether there would be live thoroughbred racing at Woodbine beginning April 18, as originally scheduled.
“Certainly, we’ve got that far in terms of thinking, but we clearly haven’t made a decision and any decision we do make will be subject to change. I’m hoping that we’ll make a decision within 10 days or so. It’s going to be difficult to carry on, but I will say this, and I do believe this, if we were to start live racing today, we wouldn’t be putting any more people at risk and creating a different circumstance than exists today in terms of the circumstances,” Lawson said.
“What I mean by that is that we already have 1,000-plus horses on the backstretch. We have the people coming there for essential care and if we were to race those horses, those circumstances are not going to change – it doesn’t increase the risk profile by live racing. I’m not suggesting that we will be live racing, I’m just suggesting that we’re dealing with a situation today where we are only allowing essential care workers and that’s all we would do if we started live racing on the thoroughbred side. It wouldn’t entail any more people.
“This is important to understand in terms of prospects of live racing. I’m not going to say that we’re going to be doing it and I’m not going to say at this point that we’re not. I think we’re going to have to project two or three weeks down the road in terms of what we’re thinking. Even if we said that we’re going to try to go, that could change daily, as I think everyone appreciates and understands.”
Critics with little understanding of the economics of the industry will point to the absurdity of horse racing continuing on when virtually all other sports are postponed and even casinos are closed most places.
Woodbine Mohawk Park had been racing with spectators banned, horsepeople and track personnel down to the fewest possible to race those horses and extra measures taken to screen people by temperature and have horses spread out as far as possible in the paddock.
Lawson said the pressure to race is immense because basic care for the horses requires, “some level of commerce, however that’s done, because some people will abandon them (otherwise). They won’t care for them, so there needs to be a level of commerce. We’re working with government and trying to figure out how best to do that.”
The point was for purse money to be awarded so those funds could flow from owners to trainers and down to caretakers and other ancillary personnel.
“The need to look after these horses and the grooms and so forth is unique to our industry. Unless you’re in it, you don’t really understand it, but once you’re in it, you get what we (were) trying to do and why (we were) trying to do it,” Lawson said. “On the thoroughbred side… a lot of these grooms and people have not been paid for four or five months (while racing was off for the winter) and they are living week to week and have hourly pay cheques. So, there needs to be some level of commerce in our economy or we are going to completely shut down to a depression state.”
Now that racing is shut down on the harness side and in jeopardy on the thoroughbred end, Lawson said he hopes accommodations can be made to use unused purse money as relief for horsepeople. He said he has already raised the issue with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation (OLG).
“They are already considering it… We need to look at that, too.”
Lawson said it’s important to stress that, although Woodbine continued to race when other tracks closed more quickly, WEG acted decisively and was always in compliance with Ontario’s state of emergency.
“We shut our grandstands and we sent our employees home. We shut our simulcast areas. We shut our bars and restaurants, WEGZ and Greenwood in particular. We’ve moved very quickly and decisively and we’re doing the right things,” Lawson said. “What makes us a different business from other businesses is, first of all, as it relates to Woodbine, we’ve got 1,000 horses on the backstretch that need care. Somehow that has to be managed and it’s on our property and these horses have to be fed, they have to be walked, they have to get some exercise. It’s particularly complicated on the thoroughbred side, because there are not enough farms to house these horses that have come up from the United States. I think the good news is, with temperature monitoring and screening and the social distancing all in place, (we were) doing the very best by the horsepeople to keep that Woodbine backstretch safe and protected with all the precautions.”
Lawson said despite there being a lot of horses and the people that care for them in the backstretch at Woodbine, “they are well spaced out. There’s 200 acres of land back there. We’re spacing training out. We have standard operating procedures now in place that are being strictly adhered to. We’re insisting that people self-isolate if they come back from the United States. Any people that do come (to the backstretch) and have to feed their horses, we’re sending them directly to isolated areas or areas that are what we’re calling ‘Designated Areas’ that are really quarantined areas, because these horses have to be fed and cared for.
“I said this on an Ontario Racing Board call (Thursday) morning, I said, ‘We as an industry have to be respectful and compliant with the government protocols that they are putting in place.’ It’s not an answer that we’re different, we’re not different. People have to self-isolate when they come back from the United States. We have to respect that the crowds have to be 50 people or less. We have to be managing this so we’re following government guidelines as an industry.”
Lawson said the long-term situation for horse racing is compounded by the unknown.
“The other difficult part is that we don’t know how long this is going to be. This could be two months, four months or it could be six months. We just don’t know and that makes it very difficult to plan and have a firm date in place because none of us know what we’re dealing with,” he said.
“It’s a day-to-day thing, at best. It changes constantly and it’s important that everyone just stays safe, first and foremost. (We were) just trying to make this work for everyone. I think the horsepeople are very appreciative that (we were) trying for them.
“There’s a very heavy burden here to do the right thing.”