Michael Copeland is determined to bring horse racing in Ontario to the highest level of sports in 2024, and based on his track record, the odds are in his favour. And that is good news for owners, trainers and breeders of racehorses in the province, an industry supporting 25,000 people.

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of what the future looks like for Ontario horseracing after a conversation with the energetic Copeland, a lawyer and former president and CEO of the Canadian Football League and the Toronto Argonauts, which won the 2017 Grey Cup under his tenure.

Copeland loves sports and the business of sports. He is an athlete, having competed and completed the Ironman challenge and several marathons. His own consulting business is currently guiding Canadian swimming star and Olympics hopeful Summer McIntosh, the Canadian Press Female Athlete of 2023.

He is also fascinated by the ‘art’ of buying and training Thoroughbreds. There would be many days Copeland would sit with his father-in-law, Nick DeToro, a longtime owner and trainer in Ontario, and ask him about his horses and his horse business.

Copeland took over CEO duties at Woodbine Entertainment from Jim Lawson last fall, but has been with the company since 2021. The 2024 Woodbine season begins Saturday, April 27 with the first of 129 racing cards.

“This year, if I had to pick one thing that is exciting for me, it is seeing our efforts show progress and success in engaging and generating a new fan base,” said Copeland. “We are focused on bringing more, and newer, people into racing and doing it in a way that showcases everything great about the sport and its people. We want to inject a new jolt of energy into the fan base.”

The opening of the new Stella Artois Terrace, considered one of Greater Toronto Area’s best patios, has continued Woodbine’s reputation of bringing a superb horse racing experience to visitors. Last year, horsepeople were presented with a trackside ‘winner’s room’ and an owner and trainer lounge on the second floor. This year, the Turf Lounge (formerly known as the Favourites dining room) located at the finish line of the second floor has been modernized and will host plenty of guest experiences, including those for longtime racing customers.

A key goal for Copeland and his team in 2024 is to expand horse racing’s presence in the world of online sports betting. Woodbine’s wagering platform landed on its first online sports betting site about six months ago, bet365, and sports bettors can wager on a variety of tracks. Woodbine handles the wagering transactions and it is the only company that is allowed to have pari-mutuel online wagering on racing in the country. Its successful Horseplayer Interactive (www.HPIBet.com) continues to be the leading betting platform on the content.

“[Online sports betting] is still relatively new and the technology is surprisingly complicated,” said Copeland. “But it is a whole new market that allows us to remain and improve our engagement with a younger demographic.”

Copeland said more online sites will soon offer horse racing, but emphasizes that horse racing needs more of a presence on sports betting pages.

“There was some sort of a policy decision to keep racing and other sports separate on the betting sites and we respect that separation. But we want to compete on a level playing field with hockey, football and baseball and horse racing needs to be alongside other sports so that fans can decide what they want to bet on.”

Copeland said King’s Plate day will be “doubled in size,” allowing for more people to attend Canada’s most famous horse race, this year scheduled for August 17. And construction should begin this year on the new Go Train station located at Woodbine as talks with government and Metrolinx have advanced.

The concert venue behind the grandstand is set to open May 3 and with the new casino and hotel already ramped up, Woodbine is seeing benefits as it runs all of the food and beverage concessions.

The success of racing and its business under Woodbine Entertainment is integral to the two other breeds of racehorses in Ontario as well. Quarter Horse racing and Standardbred racing come under Ontario Racing Management, a wholly-owned Woodbine Entertainment subsidiary that implements the approved business plan of Ontario Racing’s Board of Directors.

Rest assured, it appears that Copeland has his sights set on getting horse racing to those who have not experienced it. “It has to be one of the sports entities that will bring something cool to people and be something they will love.”

Copeland also has quite a shrewd advisor by his side. His wife Deanne, Nick DeToro’s daughter, was raised on a farm in King City and often slept in the barn, ready to assist with foaling mares.

“Horse racing is on the scale and stature of other sports that people love to experience and bet on. Our job is to make sure that Woodbine remains the best in class in terms of facility, safety and support.

“We are a ‘racing first’  organization and always will be. Our sporting technology is industry-leading and we want to grow. The next phase of this organization will take us to new heights.”