Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, spent part of a recent afternoon in a new section of the grandstand at the iconic racetrack enjoying sunny skies and good racing. The Stella Artois Terrace Patio is a reimagining of track seating designed to bring in a younger demographic to racing. The open-air area includes cushy seats, chef-designed meals, fresh greenery, and glass partitions opening up to great views. Pop music plays in the background, fading out ahead of each race call.
Woodbine is also nearing completion on the construction of a hotel which overlooks the final turn of the E.P. Taylor turf course, and which will complement both the casino and racetrack portions of the property.
Many tracks may have congratulated themselves for improving their hospitality and left it at that. But for Lawson, every new project is just a piece in a much, much bigger puzzle.
“There’s a vision, but I’ll caution by saying it’s a 20- or 25-year vision,” said Lawson. “I think that one has to at least have a plan so you can adapt. There’s a vision and a plan so that we don’t do anything wrong.”
All of it will be designed with racing as a central feature.
“The idea is to bring as many people to the site and expose them to horse racing as we can,” he said. “One of the advantages we have is that we’re effectively a not-for-profit so we’re not anxious to get a shovel in the ground at any cost and work with a developer. This is why we have a long-term vision and plan.
“We’re very much cognizant that we want to incorporate horse racing into the development. At one extreme is, you’re sitting on $2 billion worth of property here, why don’t you just sell it all and run like Kentucky Downs and run digitally and you’d be way better off? But that doesn’t do a lot for building this sport and attracting people in this sort of atmosphere. I think that’s part of our duty, given the demographic of this sport, is to grow that future fan and future owner. We feel strongly, or at least I do, that we do that for future generations.”
Woodbine sits on 700 acres, which Lawson said is larger than the heart of downtown Toronto, and a lot of it is undeveloped. He imagines a mixed-use campus that will flow around the existing racetrack operations. Residential has always been part of the vision, and at one point, retail was a central part of the equation. Now, post-pandemic, Lawson said it doesn’t make as much sense to invest too much space in retail, and instead he imagines biotech companies or educational institutions could look to build their new bases in the area. He has had considerable interest from companies looking for industrial or distribution space, but he hesitates to let too much of that into a space that will include residential areas.
Lawson’s next big challenge is a train station, which he hopes will be constructed at the southeast corner of the property in four to five years, roughly where the training track now sits. (The training track will move, possibly to the southwest corner, along with some barns.) There is already a subway track running by the back edge of Woodbine’s campus, but Lawson wants a MetroLinx station. In a city that includes an enormous system of highways which are often clogged, he believes a community with ready access to train travel could serve as a live and work location for people.
Coming soon will also be a 5,000-seat music center that can make Woodbine a destination for entertainment events.
And all those people, for Lawson, are potential racing fans. People who live in this imagined community could sip their coffee while looking out over the track during morning training.
Of course, that many extra eyeballs come with some risk for a racetrack. What if people look out their windows and see something they don’t like?
Lawson thinks the opposite is more likely.
“The people who work here, they’d do anything for these horses,” said Lawson. “If people can understand how much people love and care, and that this isn’t really the sport of kings but is about hard-working people who love horses, I think if more people understood that, we’d benefit from it.
“I think the more people that get exposed to racing, the more they’ll understand that this is what these horses want to do. They’re born to run, they’re bred to run, and that’s what they want to do. The people who raise them and look after them and race them care about them.”
It helps that Woodbine has a strong safety record, with fatality statistics that have consistently been significantly below national averages for U.S. racetracks. Lawson attributes that, in part, to the seasonality of racing at Woodbine, where most horses get a break over the winter, as well as the maintenance’s team care of the turf and synthetic surfaces.
He’s also hoping that exemplary safety record will someday put Woodbine in the running to host another Breeders’ Cup. Fans have asked for years why the races have defaulted to jumping between Kentucky and California. While Lawson understands that there’s not a lot of interest in another synthetic Breeders’ Cup now, he’s betting on his view that the better safety record of artificial surfaces will eventually force the industry to change its stance.
“I think we should be considered. I think what’s changed a little bit is the focus on horse welfare and the number of surfaces that are becoming synthetic – you’re seeing it in New York, you’ve already seen it in Florida – there’s going to be more and more acceptance of that,” he said. “I think there’s a better chance now than there was five years ago of Breeders’ Cup looking back here. And I know we’d do a great job.
“A big part of Breeders’ Cup, of course, is grass racing, and we’ve even got the inner turf that could be used for the sprints. It’s a unique turf course; it’s undulating, it’s a little bit uphill and the Euros love it. You’ve not going to see the best Euros come over if they have to run on a seven-furlong inner turf course. It keeps certain horses away. We don’t have that here.
“I hope they’ll consider it. With this facility and all Toronto has to offer, I think it would be a popular thing. Whether the traditionalists are ready to move off the dirt yet, they might.”