When Jim Lawson was a boy, the chief attraction to tagging along with his father, Mel, to the racetrack was making a trip to the backstretch. “That’s where I like to hang out… I’m still that way,” said the new CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG). “I would get so upset if I’d get up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and I’d say, ‘Where’s dad?’ and my mom would say, ‘He’s at the racetrack.’ I’d say, ‘How come he didn’t take me?’”

Shortly after taking over WEG’s reins from outgoing CEO Nick Eaves, Lawson got up on a Sunday morning and went straight to the Woodbine backstretch. It explains why he admits to being somewhat selfish for setting up a satellite office in the Woodbine backstretch where he hopes to be present a couple of mornings a week.

“There’s nothing better that being around a racetrack in the morning and seeing everyone,” he said. “They love their job. They just love being around the horses, but they love being part of the community. That’s what means a lot to me.”

Lawson’s backstretch office is a powerful symbol in an age where racetrack executives increasingly are from the business and gaming worlds and lack the knowledge and passion for horse racing.

Lawson said it’s part of a culture shift he’s trying to lead at WEG. Though five of its nine board members have strong horse racing connections, WEG has been criticized nonetheless for not having enough horsepeople in positions of influence. Lawson, who officially replaced Eaves on April 1, said he hopes to change that by working more with breeders and owners.

“I know that people having confidence in the future of racing and having confidence in Woodbine Entertainment is going to encourage people to continue to make further investments in the horse racing industry,” he said.

As for having more horsepeople on WEG’s board, Lawson is more cautious.

“I’m certainly sensitive to it. Our one-and-only mandate is the horse racing industry,” he said. “Having said that, we are a big company that has a broadcasting department of 60 people. We have WEGZ restaurant. We have Turf Lounge. We have 100 people working in food and beverage. We run the whole off-track betting network for the province. We have a big marketing budget and a large marketing group. And we have a big export product. As I look at the skill set on the board, we need people that are marketing experts. We need people that are digital media experts. We need people broadcasting. We need people potentially in food and beverage. We have 1,000 acres between Mohawk and Woodbine, much of it can be developed. We need, potentially, real estate development expertise on the board.

“So, yes, horse racing is important and I’m very cognizant that it needs to be a priority. Having said that, we have a whole lot on our plate in many different aspects of this business, all with the goal to promote and sustain horse racing. But, with so many different facets to this business, because of the way it’s grown, because of the broadcast and because of the internet wagering and digital media reach that we need to do, one also needs to attract those types of skill sets to run this business.”

CFL Connection

On the same late-November day in 1943 that the Allies heavily bombed Berlin, back at home the 31st Grey Cup game was going ahead at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. It was to be a rare distraction from the war.

Mel Lawson was just 20 that year when his Hamilton Flying Wildcats defeated the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 23-14, making him the youngest quarterback to win a Grey Cup in the more than 100 years the championship has been contested. It was an auspicious beginning to a long family association with the Canadian Football League (CFL) and other sports, including horse racing.

Mel, who also played junior hockey for the Toronto Marlboros, later poured his sporting passion into thoroughbreds. He established the Jim Dandy Stable in the 1960s and joyfully campaigned Eternal Search, a three-time Sovereign Award-winning mare that won 15 stakes races in her career. Mel was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2010 as a builder. Long before Mel died in July of 2011 at the age of 88, his son, Jim, was already following his lead on three sporting fronts.

Jim was selected 120th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1978 NHL Entry Draft out of Brown University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Western Ontario and after several corporate stints ended up at the CFL. In 2013, he was appointed the chair of the league. He served as interim commissioner of the league from January to April of this year when he took on the CEO post at WEG. Now that Jeffrey Orridge has taken over as CFL commissioner, Jim Lawson has returned to his previous role as the chair of the CFL’s board.

“There are a lot of parallels between the racing industry and the Canadian Football League. The first thing that comes to mind is attracting that young demographic. We both have a demographic that’s aging and we need to find new and better ways to get through and attract that next group, that next generation of millennials,” Lawson said. “It’s a challenge that Woodbine Entertainment faces and the Canadian Football League faces. When you start to think about things like streaming video and social media and how to spend your marketing dollar, it’s interesting to hear the marketing group at the Canadian Football League and the marketing group at Woodbine Entertainment. There’s a lot of the same thinking going on. It’s reaching out to that next generation… I raise this as the context of continuing to play a role in the CFL as chairman and, I’ve learned a lot from doing that.”

But first, Lawson needs to solidify WEG’s future by landing expanding game at Woodbine.

Woodbine Live Revisited

The key to a sustainable future, Lawson said, is taking advantage of the real estate WEG has at Woodbine and Mohawk Racetrack in Milton.

“We’re in a unique situation. We’ve got nearly 700 acres of land here,” Lawson said of Woodbine. “We’ve got the intersection of the 400 series highways here. We have close to 7,000 parking spots. We’ve got an opportunity to have a [light rail] stop here. We have over $600 million in gaming that goes on here today.

“We are working on an economic partnership with the [Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation (OLG)] which will allow development to proceed, firstly, at Woodbine in a way that is centric to their gaming expansion. More importantly for us, the development of our site for complimentary uses — entertainment uses, theatre uses, live music. The catalyst for that really is gaming expansion.”

The concept is similar to the Woodbine Live that was shelved years ago. Lawson said he’s, “very comfortable” that Woodbine will get permission to expand gaming that will serve as a catalyst for a major redevelopment of Woodbine’s property.

“I’d like to see a shovel in the ground here in the next 18 months to build an entertainment centre for live music. That’s very much a priority in the next year-and-a-half. I’ve already engaged in discussions with two or three entertainment companies very interested in being on the site.”

Lawson said a renewed relationship with the OLG should help.

“Our relationship is such with the OLG that they understand the importance of horse racing to the number of jobs in this province. I think there’s been a clear mandate from the Ontario government to make sure all of these jobs are sustainable,” he said. “In our case, we think in the local economy here that there will be many, many jobs represented not only by initial construction jobs, but also the types of uses. When you think of restaurants, when you think of hospitality, when you think of live entertainment, those are all labour-intensive uses. It’s not like using the land here for a large industrial distribution centre where you might build a 100,000-square foot centre and have four or five employees. These are very labour-intensive uses that related to our expansion, as is the horse industry. I don’t know the exact numbers, but depending on circumstances of the breed, you’re two-and-a-half to three people employed per horse.

“We need to recognize between ourselves and the gaming industry in Ontario that there’s a partnership that can work well here together. What’s in it for Woodbine Entertainment and what’s in it for the province of Ontario is to protect and grow those 40,000 jobs across the province that are involved in the horse racing industry.”

He said he’s not overly concerned about competing casinos in the GTA, so long as Woodbine has expanded gaming. Just a few months on the job, he already has his sales pitch well practiced.

“When you really think of it, we have probably the best located sites in North America given our highway access and the parking and the land. This is just a dream in terms of not just gaming, but in terms of the opportunity to make it an entertainment district and bring people to these grounds and introduce them to horse racing. For us, it’s all about people flow. There’s six million visitors per year that come here and I think there’s a great opportunity to double that number and, in turn, introduce people to the sport of horse racing.”

It’s the first step to getting more people to invest in horses.

Purses Are Key

Lawson acknowledges horse racing is experiencing a huge problem with horse supply, “not just for us, but across North America. That’s, in part, why you’ve seen the consolidation and the short fields. Racetracks rely on their pari-mutuel commissions and… (We know) there’s a direct correlation between large horse fields and gaming. We as an industry need to do not only a better job overall, but be completely focused on attracting new people to this industry. Not only as fans, but also as people that are prepared to be part of the game.”

So, how can WEG help drive more investment? Lawson said expanded gaming, and real estate development can provide the dollars and attract more patrons. That, in turn, can lead to enhanced purses to attract investment.

“I think the easy answer — and it’s not the only answer by any means — is we have to continue to offer a world-class product in the standardbred industry and the thoroughbred industry,” Lawson said. “We have to create that dream that if you want to breed a horse or buy a horse, that you’re doing so with a view of racing in the North America Cup, or you’re doing so with a view of running in the Queen’s Plate.

“Purse size will attract not only investment, but it will attract horses from elsewhere in North America to come up to Mohawk and come up to Woodbine.”

But before that can happen, Lawson would like to change the culture at WEG.

“Number one for me is our culture. We want to make Woodbine a place that people want to come and work at,” Lawson said, adding that next on the list of priorities is enhancing WEG’s already strong position as a community leader.

“These are the things that are priorities — our culture, our guests, our product, making sure our field sizes are big. Our technology is a priority; making sure that we’re keeping up. We’re competing with many tracks, but also other gaming opportunities, including OLG who has online gaming. We have to make sure we’re working hard with our technology and our distribution. Then, these things all roll together.

“I think we’re facing a very big opportunity and a positive road forward for this industry. I’m going to deliver on it.”

Part of the product changes includes the installation of a new Tapeta surface on the main thoroughbred track at Woodbine at the end of 2015 to replace the Polytrack surface.

Further to that, Lawson would like to see changes to the famed E.P. Taylor Turf Course.

“I’m a big believer in turf racing. I’ve challenged our guys to look at adding chutes and reconfiguring the property in some way so we can run more turf racing,” Lawson said. “It’s no secret in the thoroughbred world that owners and trainers and even the horses like running on grass. I think our biggest opportunity to attract horses here is through our turf program. Our numbers show that our greatest number of imports here are coming up to run on the turf. It, of course, complements or goes hand-in-hand with our Tapeta surface. The best answer I can give is biomechanically, horses that perform well on Tapeta also perform well on grass. So, it goes hand in hand.”

Jim Lawson has other ideas for fostering sustainability and growing horse racing, but, for now, let him get settled in both his corporate and backstretch offices.

“In particular, what I’d like to do in the backstretch, and will do, is talk to our stakeholders, the owners that are there in the mornings, the trainers, the exercise riders and just hear how they feel about our business,” Lawson said. “Most of them are not shy about giving me their opinions for better and for worse.”