By Bill Finley
The Ontario government has put in place new COVID-19 restrictions that will last a minium of four weeks and include a ban on horse racing. What is being called an “emergency brake” went into effect Saturday, putting the Apr. 17 opener at Woodbine in doubt. Its sister track, the harness facility Mohawk Park, was not able to run on Saturday and will be shut down indefinitely.
There were 2,557 reported cases of COVID-19 Thursday in Ontario, the most in a single day since Jan. 22.
While understanding the seriousness of the pandemic, Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson has been frustrated by the government's efforts and said that people are not looking at the facts when it comes to horse racing. According to Lawson, there was only one case of COVID reported in 2020 between both Woodbine and Mohawk and none on the backstretch of either track.
“There wasn't enough thought and consideration given to a very large industry with a very large economic impact and a very stellar safety record,” Lawson said. “No one has really given any thought to racing because if they had, they never would have included racing in this lockdown. It's an outdoor activity with as near perfect safety record. No one is giving the industry its due.”
To back his point, Lawson questions why, during the four-week lockdown, NHL games will be allowed to continue and that golf will also be permitted.
“I am a golfer and am happy to go golfing,” Lawson said. “But I know that when I go out to the golf course, no one will stop me, no one will require me to wear a mask and no one will take my temperature. There will be no safety measures and protocols to speak of. If the government would come here and see what we are doing they'd have a completely different view.
“Here we are in our own little bubble with a perfect safety record and it is an outdoor activity. They say hockey, an indoor activity, has great safety measures in place. I don't say this wishing anyone any ill will, but there are NHL games being postponed and now the Vancouver Canucks have eight players with COVID. They've had more COVID in three days than we had in a year.”
Lawson said he has heard from several trainers who, because of the uncertainty, are delaying shipping into Woodbine. If the lockdown goes on too long, Lawson fears some of the stables may remain in the U.S. throughout the year.
“We've got trainers in Florida and Louisiana who are calling me, asking what do I think?” Lawson said. “My honest answer is I can tell you that we are having discussions but can't guarantee you we will open Apr. 17. I'm not going to tell them to come or to stay away. I just tell them the facts.”
Lawson said he has been working to convince public officials that racing should not have been included among the list of businesses that will not be allowed to operate during the emergency brake period. He said he has had productive discussions with health officials representing Ontario. He added that what is needed at this point is for the Toronto Health Department to consider the facts and allow racing to resume.
“I have spoken to [the Ontario Health Department] directly three or four times,” he said. “The province is telling me if you can get the local health authority on your side, they will support live racing opening up. Will that happen in the next week or two weeks? With Toronto public health, we don't know for sure. I can tell you that we have delivered a huge package of documents that make our case.”
Lawson said he remains hopeful that the Woodbine season will start on time.
“I am still optimistic and that is based on my discussions with Toronto Health,” he said. “We need things to stabilize over the next week or two and we must continue to to have a good safety record on our backstretch.”
Lawson said that there are already 1,300 horses on the Woodbine backstretch, their trainers waiting for racing to resume.