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Lawson unsure if Woodbine thoroughbred racing season will start on time

One Bad Boy, second from right, ridden by jockey Flavien Prat, rides in the pack on his way to win the Queen's Plate at Woodbine Racetrack, in Toronto on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Jim Lawson, chief operating officer of Woodbine Entertainment, is hopeful Woodbine's thoroughbred racing season will start on time but he's uncertain if the campaign will open April 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
March 18, 2020 - 3:00 PM

TORONTO - Jim Lawson can't say with certainty Woodbine Racetrack's thoroughbred season will begin on time.

It's tentatively scheduled to open April 18, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made that a very soft start date. And while Woodbine officials are busy creating potential contingency plans, the uncertainty surrounding the virus is wreaking havoc with that process.

"Yeah, completely," said Lawson, Woodbine Entertainment's chief operating officer. "Assuming there's a delay and I won't be surprised if we do have a delay in the season, is it for one month, two months, three months?

"Is the season going to be cancelled? We just don't know and it makes it very hard to plan. Our priority is to look after the horses, ensure they're being cared for and exercised. That's not all with just a view to start the season, it's trying to look after the horses and that's what people want to do."

Some American tracks have closed while others have opted to hold races without spectators. On Saturday, the US$1-million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby will go before an empty grandstand in New Orleans. Mark Casse, Canada's top trainer an unprecedented 11 times, will saddle two horses in that race, including 7/2 early favourite Enforceable.

On Tuesday, the Kentucky Derby — the opening race of the American Triple Crown — was rescheduled from May 2 to Sept. 5. If Woodbine must begin its season late, that will impact its top event, the $1-million Queen's Plate.

The first leg of Canada's Triple Crown is scheduled for June 27. But the uncertainty created by the novel coronavirus has forced Woodbine officials to refrain from taking financial commitments for its marquee race.

A later start would also have a trickle-down affect for the other two Triple Crown races — the $400,000 Prince of Wales Stakes (July 21 at Fort Erie) and $400,000 Breeders Stakes' (Aug. 15 at Woodbine). It would also dramatically impact the Ricoh Woodbine Mile (Sept. 19) and Pattison Canadian International (Oct. 18), two $1-million turf races.

"We're now working on what I'll call Plan B in terms of a stakes schedule," Lawson said. "We'll keep the proportionate number of stake races, we won't just eliminate those at the beginning of the season ...

"But we also won't run over 100 stakes races in a season that's, say, been shortened by three months. That's just to get us thinking and working on what it (revised schedule) might look like in terms of dates."

Lawson said NBC is scheduled to broadcast the Woodbine Mile but that was before the Kentucky Derby was switched to September. A late start at the Toronto oval could further complicate matters.

Lawson hopes to know in roughly 10 days whether Woodbine's thoroughbred season will start on time. But that decision will come with a catch.

"It would always come with the caveat that circumstances are changing so quickly and day by day," he said. "It's all subject to change due to circumstances.

"I don't know if waiting two months is any better than four or five in terms of planning. We just don't know whether we'll be racing at all and that's not an alarmist or dramatic statement. It's just the truth. When I say we're going to look at a contingency Plan B of starting the season June 15 or July 1, I don't say that with any conviction because I'm not sure things are going to be any better then."

Although the start of Woodbine's meet is a month away, there's still plenty going on in the backstretch. Horses are in barns and people are working to care for them daily.

Only essential employees are being allowed into the facility but they're subject to protocol that includes temperature testing.

"Our horse people have been very good," Lawson said. "They're waiting in line for temperature checks and not complaining, people are declaring if they have some sort of flu or illness and are staying home.

"We're getting complete co-operation because they know what a bind we're in and we're trying more than anything to help them."

Lawson said Woodbine has just enough employees on site "to keep the lights on." Many full-time people are working remotely while hourly staff who've been sent home are still being paid for their two weeks of scheduled shifts.

What's more, Lawson estimates there's another 10,000-15,000 people who're dependent on the industry for their livelihood.

"We're trying to work our way through this and do the best for everyone," Lawson said. "The thing is right now we just don't know."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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