By T. D. Thornton
On Tuesday, the consortium that operates Fort Erie racetrack filed a grievance with the Canadian Trade Commission over alleged strongarm business tactics by Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) that Fort Erie contends are designed to “starve Fort Erie of its necessary horse supply.”
Two days later, David Anderson, a prominent Ontario-based breeder who owns Anderson Farms and serves on the boards of three key Thoroughbred organizations in Canada, told TDN that Woodbine's tactics are, in his opinion, a coordinated effort to hamper Fort Erie's operations, and that some of those detrimental decisions are being funded by money that is supposed to be earmarked for Thoroughbred-industry improvement in Ontario.
Anderson also warned that some of Woodbine's purse allocation strategies for the 2023 meet that starts Apr. 22–namely the reduction of maiden special weight (MSW) purses from $126,000 (Canadian) to $111,600 to purportedly bolster the money offered for low-level claiming races-could result in “the biggest mass exodus of Ontario bred horses” out of the province.
“There's no reason on earth why Woodbine should be running $5,000 claimers and competing against Fort Erie,” Anderson said. “I mean, it's just never been that way. And there's enough room in the province for an A track and a B track. But they're just trying to snuff out their competition. And the horsemen don't want it. The government doesn't want it. It's just Woodbine upper brass, just… I don't know what the proper word is for it.”
“I have a significant investment in the game,” Anderson said. “I'm one of the bigger breeders in Canada, and I sit on all these industry boards. Ontario Racing. I sit on the board of the HBPA in Ontario. I sit on the board of the Jockey Club of Canada. I'm on every single industry board, committee [and] subcommittees that there are. And no one is willing to step up and speak out against Woodbine because of the bully tactics and the dictatorship that [WEG chief executive officer Jim] Lawson's been running.
“They're afraid he's going to take away stalls from them on the backside; he's going to exercise private-property rights and kick them off the grounds,” Anderson continued. “I mean, it's just a complete totalitarian regime over there. And I don't want to sit here and make the article a complete bashing of Woodbine. We've got so many things that are fantastic that are going on [in Ontario]. Unfortunately, we're on this island up there that the tail wags the dog, and Woodbine is the mothership. And with the stroke of the pen, they can take one of our programs basically illegally and take those funds and redirect it or reallocate it into a program that they want to do that bolsters their profits.”
Anderson articulated other specific criticisms in his Apr. 20 interview, such as Woodbine's “no return” shipping policy for horses that leave the grounds to race at Fort Erie. He also echoed concerns about an allegation that surfaced in Fort Erie's formal grievance: the recent rescheduling of the Canadian Triple Crown series, which he alleged works to Woodbine's advantage and against both Fort Erie and the best interests of Ontario's overall racing industry.
TDN on Friday emailed Woodbine's communications director, Jamie Dykstra, requesting an interview with Lawson (or any other company executive) to give Woodbine the chance to get its side of the story about Anderson's complaints on the record.
In response, Dykstra wrote that no interview would be forthcoming. He attached a fact sheet about purses and a prepared statement that Woodbine had issued earlier in the week about Fort Erie's grievance.
That press release stated: “The assertions made by Fort Erie Race Track are baseless and without merit and we will vigorously and confidently defend ourselves if requested by the Canadian Trade Commission or any other regulatory authority. We are very proud of the vital role we play in supporting the strength, success and growth of the Ontario horse racing industry. We are very much looking forward to starting our 2023 meet this Saturday. We will have no further comment on this matter at this time.”
'How are we improving the breed?'
Anderson underscored how the province's racing industry should be operating from a solid starting point instead of dealing with infighting between Ontario's two Thoroughbred tracks.
“I sit on the board of Ontario Racing, which governs all of the racing in Ontario. It's a government-appointed board that administers all of the funds for Thoroughbred racing, Standardbred racing, and Quarter Horse racing. And there's subcommittees on that board. One of them is the Thoroughbred Improvement Program, or TIP.
“We have a mare purchase program that we've been promoting quite heavily,” Anderson said. “We've brought in well over 300 brand-new, pregnant mares into the province in the last three years, which has been much needed in our province. We were actually [up] double digits in live foals, in mares bred, in new stallions in our province, which is greater than any jurisdiction in North America. So there's lots of great points here that we've [put] into place.”
Anderson said that during the same time frame, TIP ushered in a program that had increased MSW purses at Woodbine to $126,000 by the end of the 2022 meet.
“And it's been crazy-successful for Ontario breds. Ontario bred yearlings in the last three years are up 68% average at the sales. People are buying Ontario-bred yearlings because they want to run in this program. Breeders are buying better mares, breeding to better stallions because they're able to sell their yearlings for more money. And ultimately, it's because of the program.”
But Anderson said he was dismayed when Woodbine's first 2023 condition book got released, and MSW purses had been slashed from $126,000 to $111,600.
“Once these owners that have bought yearlings last fall and the fall before and are expecting to run for those purses find out about it, they're going to leave,” Anderson said.
“[And] the fact is, it's government money,” Anderson continued. “This program was set up by TIP. It's worked and it is working, and [Woodbine] can't just take the money and go and put it where they want to put it. They can take their other purse account money and go and do with it whatever they want, or they actually have to negotiate it with the HBPA. But they're not even doing that. There's zero negotiations with the HBPA. I sit on that board. I sit on the liaison committee. I know exactly what's gone on. It's zero.
“How are we improving the breed by taking money from our upper-echelon horses and putting it into $5,000 claimers?” Anderson said. “They're leveraging those government dollars to bolster their own coffers.”
'I can't sit back and watch'
Anderson said he is hoping that a planned regime change at Woodbine could bring about a new sense of cooperation. On Apr. 11, WEG announced that Lawson will be stepping down from his role as CEO this fall after 15 years at the track in various management positions, although it is expected that Lawson will be associated with Woodbine in a “senior role” that will be defined at a later date.
“Jim Lawson has finally stepped down, which is going to be hopefully a very positive move for the horse industry in Ontario,” Anderson said. “The problem is there's no one to take over. There's no one currently in upper management at Woodbine that knows the mane from the tail. And we've got to put the feelers out there across North America or the world and try and find somebody that can step in and take on that role.
“The horsemen are the stakeholders of Woodbine,” Anderson said. “It's a not-for-profit. We are the stakeholders and these guys at Woodbine and their board, quite frankly, have to be accountable and there has to be governance. And now that Jim's stepped down, there has to be a proper executive search done for a proper CEO that understands horse racing.”
Anderson said that for years, Woodbine “always ran with Fort Erie as a sister track.” But that mindset has been quashed.
“If you couldn't break your maiden at Woodbine, you drove 40 minutes down the road and you broke your maiden at Fort Erie and came back,” Anderson said. “If you had a well-bred filly that couldn't win at Woodbine, but you wanted to get a win under her belt, you'd run down there and do it. And when David Willmot ran the place [until retiring in 2012], he understood that. He's a breeder. He is an owner, he got it. Now they've put this rule in, if you leave Woodbine and go run at Fort Erie, you can't come back.
“When I was a kid growing up back in the '70s, the lowest claiming rank at Woodbine was $6,250,” Anderson said. “It's now $5,000 at Woodbine. They have become a B track, but on purpose. They don't want good horses.”
“And here we are, struggling as much as we can to get better horses and build our industry,” Anderson said. “And we've got this mothership doing the opposite, and they don't get it. They want to run $5,000 claimers because they're 12-horse fields. They pay out a $20,000 purse, and they get big pari-mutuel wagering out of it. Yet in the last 15 years, we've had $4 million in purse increases on a $70 million contract. I mean, it's nothing. You look at every racetrack around North America over the last 15 years, and tell me how much their purses have gone up.
“Woodbine, it's a different mindset,” Anderson summed up. “And as a horseman and as a person, I'm in a position where I can stand up to these guys. I can let them have it. What are they going to do to me? Kick me off the grounds, take my box away? I've known Jim for 20-plus years. My father sat on the board of Woodbine for 35 years. I mean, I've been going to that place since I was a kid, and I absolutely love it. It's home to me. [But] I can't sit back on behalf of all the horse people in Canada and watch this happen. They have to be accountable. And kudos to Fort Erie for actually taking it to court.”
Anderson's sister, Jessica Buckley, was the Senior Vice President of Standardbred and Thoroughbred Racing at Woodbine, but resigned last June.