Ontario Government OK’s Woodbine Casino

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Woodbine | Michael Burns/WEG

by Perry Lefko

Although there is no timetable for when it will happen, Woodbine Entertainment Group will finally have a full-fledged casino–something it has wanted for several years–following a decision by the Ontario government to privatize gaming in the province.

WEG Chairman Jim Lawson told TDN Wednesday that having a casino that includes table games and an expansion of its slot machines is a game changer in terms of creating employment and economic activity on the site. Most importantly, he said, it will expose more people to the sport of horse racing.

“Our only mandate as a corporation–and I think this is worthwhile in saying–is to promote horse racing, and so the way we’re looking at this is, does this really help horse racing?” Lawson said. “If we can get 10-12 million visitors, which is the
estimate that everyone is giving once you start getting into
some potential institutional use and sports fields, I think it leads
to so many more people on the site.”

He continued, “It would be great if we could have all these people coming on to our property and then we can sell out our dining rooms and march horses around. We can really promote our sport. It would be great to have all of that right in the backyard of a horse racing track.”

The Ontario government announced Tuesday that Great Canadian Gaming Corporation and Brookfield Business Partners won the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s bid to expand and operate three gaming facilities in the Greater
Toronto Area, notably Woodbine, the major operator of horse racing in the province.

Woodbine has made its intention known for several years to have a full-fledged casino on its property to compete with companies in surrounding areas that have casinos with slots and gaming tables, but don’t offer horse racing. OLG indicated in its announcement that Woodbine could potentially have 5,000 slots machines–double its current amount–and 400 gaming tables.

Because there are various regulatory conditions that must be made before any construction begins at Woodbine, there is no specific timetable for when the casino will open. Lawson is hoping the regulatory hurdles can be cleared in a year’s time from now, adding that a casino is part of WEG’s plans to make Woodbine a total destination for entertainment that could also include a hotel and concert hall.

“That’s something we’re still keen on doing and we’re moving ahead with,” he said. “If you assume this new gaming expansion is going to bring millions of visitors to the site, then the success of a music venue is, in part, tied to that. The announcement [several years ago] of an entertainment venue by Woodbine was separate from this announcement, although we acknowledged all along this gaming development had to go ahead as a catalyst to put the entertainment venue in. I think this gives a much better chance now for the entertainment venue to move ahead now that we know who we’re dealing with and now that we’re moving ahead.”

The announcement of a casino is the latest news regarding changes to Woodbine, which was built by E.P. Taylor and opened in 1956. WEG announced in June plans to move its harness racing division full-time to its plant at Mohawk Racetrack in 2018, thereby making Woodbine solely a thoroughbred track. There are also plans to turn the harness track into a second turf track.

Lawson said the addition of the casino will provide the financial resources needed to operate Woodbine as a world-class horse racing facility.

“For the benefit of our horsemen and for the benefit of the sport, we want this to be a vibrant district of entertainment and residential and institutional uses,” he said. “Not many racetracks in North America enjoy the two training tracks that we have. Just for the quality of our grounds and the backstretch, we need the cash flow from the use of the land to maintain all those things for our horsemen.”

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