Despite Huge NA Cup Card, Still No Betting On Horse Racing Through Canada Sportsbook Apps

Written By Dave Briggs on June 16, 2023
Pebble Beach wins 2022 Pepsi North America Cup

Being able to bet on horse racing through one of the many Ontario sports betting apps won’t be legal in time for Saturday night’s $1 million Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton, ON.

But the incoming CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group told PlayCanada that he is hopeful betting on horses via Ontario sportsbook sites will be allowed by Aug. 20. That’s the date of the King’s Plate, the most important race on the Canadian thoroughbred calendar.

“We have been very transparent about the opportunity that the King’s Plate presents as a launch date,” said Michael Copeland, who will take over from current Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson in October of this year. “We work in partnership with OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming) and Woodbine exists only for the benefit of the Ontario racing community. So, I think it’s important for all parties involved to try to leverage the opportunity that [King’s Plate] day presents.”

In the meantime, Woodbine’s focus is on its premiere harness racing event. The Pepsi North America Cup annually features the very best 3-year-old male pacers in North America. It is also the first major event on the Canadian horse racing calendar.

Why you can’t bet on horse racing in Canada through sportsbook sites

Currently, betting on horses while in Canada is only allowed at Canadian racetracks and through Woodbine’s two betting platforms: HorsePlayer Interactive and Dark Horse Bets.

In a two-part series published in December 2022, PlayCanada explained in detail why betting on horse racing is not allowed on sports betting apps while the person betting is in Canada.

The synopsis is this:

Prior to single-event sports betting being approved federally in 2021, Woodbine fought and won the right to exclude operators from offering pari-mutuel wagering in Canada. That meant Canadian operators could not add horse racing to their gambling mix.

“Horse racing remains pari-mutuel and with us being the only current pari-mutuel license holder in the province of Ontario, if they want our product, they have to come and get it from us,” Lawson told PlayCanada last August.

Pari-mutuel wagering is a system in which bets are pooled, the house take is deducted and the payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets. The system is critical to supporting the costly exercise of owning and campaigning racehorses and putting on the horse racing product.

Woodbine was concerned that bringing in the fixed-odds wagering that sportsbooks offer would lead to razor-thin margins and, ultimately, horse racing’s demise.

Copeland, currently Woodbine’s president commercial, said in December that the ban on other operators being able to offer pari-mutuel wagering directly was, “specifically to allow the profits from racing to remain within the industry and not to leave through an expat entity.”

Why the delay in launching?

Woodbine’s initial hope was to be able to offer its product on Ontario sports betting apps by March or April of this year. Canadian horse racing already missed out on the sport’s golden exposure opportunity that was the Kentucky Derby.

On Wednesday, Copeland said the technology is largely ready. Woodbine now just needs federal and provincial regulators to sign off on it to go live.

“The technology is virtually complete,” Copeland told PlayCanada. “It’s been a long and very detailed process, but a really productive one. So, we think we have that well in hand, and now it’s just providing the information to the regulators that need to make the approval decisions. So, we’re very optimistic that we will get that across the line.”

When it does launch, the technology will be available to any Canadian sportsbook that wants to offer betting on horse racing.

At the same time, Woodbine will also be announcing a partnership with one, yet-to-be-named sports betting operator.

“We’ve been working with one organization. But, throughout this process, we’ve been very clear that it’s our intention to be available to all online sportsbooks that operate to our standards and that are duly licensed with iGaming Ontario and we will offer our product on similar terms to all of those who are interested — and we hope it is all of them because racing is such a powerful product for them. But, we have worked with one in particular for the launch.”

Saturday’s Pepsi North America Cup offers betting bonanza

It’s a shame betting on horses will not be more widely available in Canada since Saturday’s NA Cup is shaping up to be a doozy of a betting event.

The June 10 eliminations drew 33 horses requiring four elimination races, the most since 2009. Those eliminations produced some epic battles with only the top two finishers guaranteed to make the seven-figure final, along with two of the third-place finishers drawn by lot.

Handicappers are calling the $1 million final one of the deepest in years, with no clear-cut favourite.

It’s all part of Saturday’s stakes-rich card at Woodbine Mohawk Park offering over $2.3 million in purses, seven stakes races and a plethora of betting specials including:

  • Three separate Pick 5 wagers — both an early and all-stakes Pick 5 (each guaranteed at $100,000) and a late Pick 5 (no guarantee).
  • Jackpot Hi-5 mandatory payout in Race 13 (carryover of $213,123 going into Saturday).
  • Two Pick 4 bets — one early, one late.
  • The ability to earn 5x the points when betting $75 or more on the Pepsi North America Cup card through HorsePlayer Interative.

The Pepsi North America Cup is carded as race 11 on the 13-race program that has a first-race post time of 6:30 p.m. The NA Cup itself is due to go to post around 10:40 p.m. The race will be broadcast coast-to-coast on TSN starting at 10 p.m. (ET).

The 2022 Pepsi North America Cup card produced a record handle for Woodbine Mohawk Park of $6.3 million. Some $1.9 million in new money was bet on the Jackpot Hi-5 mandatory payout.

Largest casino in Canada opening at Woodbine Racetrack

Meanwhile, at Woodbine’s other racing facility — Woodbine Racetrack next to Toronto’s Pearson Airport — the largest casino in Canada is due to open next Tuesday.

Though the $1 billion casino is operated by Great Canadian Entertainment, Copeland said Woodbine stands to benefit in a number of ways.

“It’s going to create more energy and more people but even from an immediate business opportunity, Woodbine runs all food beverage service in the casinos with the exception of a couple restaurants. So, that is an immediate boost to our business,” he said.

“Also, the casino operators rent the land from Woodbine and that rental agreement is based on how well they do in terms of their gaming operations. So, we have shared goals for their success. And that’s another one of those variables, that it’s difficult to go through all the details of how that can impact what we’re able to do, but our belief and hope is that the investments we’re making now into that to help fuel that are really going to be able to pay back in multiples.”

Getting horse racing on Canadian sportsbook apps will be a game changer

As for betting on horse racing directly, Copeland said getting the sport on sports betting apps will be a game-changer for the horse racing industry due to the increased exposure to gamblers.

“Our core wagerers are deeply passionate about ensuring that [horse racing] will continue and it’s our job to make sure that we continue to service them, but it presents a real opportunity for us with the casual fans and the single-event sports wagers,” Copeland said.

“It will mean a lot of exposure and be a real opportunity to speak to people and get into the decision set of people that otherwise may have been very difficult to reach. And also, to take a step back and rethink how we present horse racing to a new generation of fans. So, maintaining it for our core fans, but being open to new ways to present racing. That’s an exciting opportunity.”

In the end, an Ontario horse racing industry that features 15 racetracks and supports some 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs stands to benefit most.

“Woodbine’s mandate is to support the racing industry. It’s a not-for-profit organization. There’s no other way for us to spend our capital and our resources. It’s all to that end,” Copeland said.

“When you look at what we’re doing with the property development, with our marketing efforts to grow the sport, our investments to be a real leader within sports betting, that is going to lead to a lot more that we’re able to offer for a very, very long time and that’s what we’re aiming for. I’m quite confident we’re going to get there and I think that’s when you’ll see the horse community appreciate the decisions we’re making now.”

Photo by New Image Media
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in Canada with emphasis on the casino, sports betting and horse racing sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Canada and Michigan.

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