On a dark and rainy afternoon at Woodbine racetrack, Michael Lay and his family witnessed one of the greatest racehorses in history put on a remarkable show. Secretariat powered through sodden conditions to win the Canadian International by 6 1/2 lengths in front of 35,000 delirious fans, completing his incredible racing career.

It was memorable trips to the racetrack like that one in 1973 that stayed with Lay for years before he bought his first share in a racehorse 40 years later. And in the short time since then, Lay has developed a deep interest in horse racing and its future. In November 2020, Lay joined former Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and owner/breed Dr. Anne Straatman as new directors on the board of Woodbine Entertainment.

“There are several reasons I wanted to join Woodbine,” said Lay, who was born in Hamilton but has lived in Toronto for most of his life. “Firstly, my interest in horses of course. I have gotten to know [WE president Lawson] Jim a little bit and have chatted with him about horse racing and the challenges the sport is facing.”

Lay is also attracted to the potential presented by developing the expansive Woodbine property, already underway with the construction of a hotel on the east side of the grandstand. “There is a great opportunity that exists to develop it and attract people which, in the long run, will benefit horse racing.
And I guess professionally I have some skills that Jim and other members of the board think could be helpful. Plus I enjoy doing that kind of stuff.”

Lay puts a humble spin on his ‘skills’; he is the managing partner and co-head if ONCAP, the middle market private equity platform of Onex which invests and manages capital on behalf of shareholders and investors around the world. He is the former head of the Private Equity Group at Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and a senior manager at Ernst & Young.

Outside the business world it is horse racing that greatly interests Lay and it was thanks to friend Michael Loughrey that he first purchased a share in a Thoroughbred.

“Michael’s daughter Meg was over at our house visiting with my daughter Courtney. Mike owned horses and had been around horses for quite some time. I asked her if her dad was ever looking for a partner in a horse to give me a call. Well, he called.”

Lay met Loughrey’s trainer Don MacRae and the partnership’s first horse, Reeves Hill, claimed in 2013, went on to be a winner.

Only three years later the team had a summer to remember. Two horses they claimed that year won stakes races. Puntrooskie, a $40,000 pick-up in July, won two straight races including the Grade 3 Bold Venture Stakes worth $150,000, defeating stars such as Noholdingback Bear and Calgary Cat.

In August they claimed Strut n Stomp, also for $40,000, and he promptly won the $125,000 Halton Stakes.

“That was obviously very thrilling,” said Lay. “For me, any time any one of my horses runs and wins is a thrill.”

Lay has shared ownership in a few horses each year, either with Loughrey, MacRae or Jim and Graeme Bruce. They don’t just claim horses, either; many are sales purchases they enjoy naming with hockey-themed monikers. Post to Post is a filly who has been a good earner, as has Keep Your Head Up and Yzerman.

“We are all hockey people and we have fun naming the horses.”

Lay also has a horse he owns himself and he’s an exciting prospect. Cruden Bay, a son of Ontario stallion Big Screen, was a $45,000 yearling purchase at the CTHS Ontario sale in 2019 and a 7 1/4 length winner of his career debut last November. Lay was attracted to the horse when he saw he was a half-brother to multiple stakes winner Cooler Mike, a popular horse at Woodbine. Cruden Bay took some time to get to the races as a two-year-old in 2020 ‒ but it paid off.

“Donny is very patient and careful with the two-year-olds,” said Lay, who has about a dozen horse interests for 2021. “He doesn’t rush them and that is why I like working with him. We all manage our expectations and help each other be patient.”

Cruden Bay is nominated to the August 22 Queen’s Plate.

Before the racing season at Woodbine gets underway on April 17, however, Lay is looking forward to working with Lawson and the WE board in his new position.

In addition to the racing and property development, issues on the table for the board in 2021 include single sports betting, bringing new owners to the sport and the age-old challenge of expanding racing’s fan base.

“The sport has a demographic challenge: how do you attract younger people? And horse ownership can be intimidating and it is expensive. With partnerships and ownership groups that we have started to see, you can share the risk and I think we need to do more work on that front.”

“The sport has a demographic challenge: how do you attract younger people? And horse ownership can be intimidating and it is expensive. With partnerships and ownership groups that we have started to see, you can share the risk and I think we need to do more work on that front.”

MacRae believes Lay will be valuable to the Woodbine board.

“He’s very passionate about the game and really wants to see horse racing get to the next level,” said MacRae. “He is a very intelligent man and I think he will be a great asset.”

Lay realizes the challenges facing Ontario racing heading into 2021, which includes getting the sport up and running again despite the continued plight of the Covid-19 pandemic, will not be solved overnight.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I am happy to roll up my sleeves and get involved in discussions and ideas.”

And hopefully some trackside visits to cheer on his horses.