By Bill Finley
The Ontario government announced earlier this week that a province-wide COVID-19-related lockdown has been extended to at least May 20, dashing hopes that Woodbine will be able to open for business any time soon. The meet was supposed to begin Apr. 17.
“There is a crisis right now in the Toronto area and we're right in the middle of it,” said Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson. “They are running out of intensive care beds and the numbers are not going down. The good news is that more vaccines are coming in May, which will help a lot. People keep asking me when we are going to open, and I tell them to remain optimistic, but people are getting tired of Jim Lawson telling them he is hopeful.”
On Friday, health officials in Ontario reported more than 4,500 new COVID-19 cases and another 34 deaths linked to the disease.
Though he is hoping the track will be permitted to operate after May 20, Lawson says he cannot be certain that Woodbine will be allowed to race on that date. If the COVID situation does not improve in Ontario, the lockdown could be extended again. Another possibility is that the lockdown will be lifted but the Toronto area will fall into the “gray zone” category, under which racing is still not permitted. The Woodbine meet was cut short last year, ending on Nov. 26 when Toronto was declared a gray zone area.
“If the province comes out of the stay-at-home order and goes back to the same restrictions we had previously, then horse racing would not be permitted,” Lawson said. “Gray is the most stringent color code. When they go back to the color-coded system, Toronto would likely fall into the gray zone, and that would be a problem for Woodbine Thoroughbreds.”
Since the track closed early last year, Lawson has been pleading Woodbine's case, arguing that it is hypocritical to allow the NHL, where the games are played indoors, to operate while horse racing, an outdoor sport, is not allowed. Lawson said he has had talks with the local health department and representatives of the province, but has not been given the answers he was looking for.
“I'm banging my head against the wall,” Lawson said.
After there was just one case of COVID-19 all last year at Woodbine, a recent outbreak has occurred on the backstretch. Woodbine confirmed last week that 15 people working in the stabling area have tested positive for COVID-19.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the meet, the fear is that a large number of horses will leave Woodbine in order to race in the U.S. and may not come back. Another concern is that trainers who had been planning to race at Woodbine will instead stay home. Lawson said that Graham Motion was planning to have a string at the track this year, but has informed the racing department that because of the shutdown he will not be coming.
Woodbine's leading trainer, Mark Casse, has shipped some horses to Woodbine, but fewer than he normally would have at this point.
“We have about 35, 40 horses there and normally we would have about 75,” Casse said. “We have stopped sending horses up. There's been talk of maybe pulling some more horses out of there, which we probably will do. I could see us possibly sending a few to New York, but with a lot of the horses I have [at Woodbine], it's because they are Canadian-bred or owned.”