As you may know, Toronto played host to the SiGMA Americas and Canadian Gaming summits last week. The conference tag-team brought in people from around the world, including about 20 of my Catena Media coworkers and myself.
After a few days of the Ontario online casino and sportsbook industry providing its backdrop, SiGMA (which I attended) unofficially concluded Wednesday night.
The closing afterparty went down at a nightclub that even I felt waaay too old for (at 33). The next day, conference attendees could explore the city after recovering from tinnitus, hangovers and/or nostalgia. (The latter, thanks to a Fat Joe performance that ended the night.)
Some went on a wine tour. Others ventured to Niagara Falls. Me? I headed to Woodbine Racetrack.
Why visit Woodbine?
I’m a proud horse racing fan. I worked in the business full-time for over six years, and the racetrack is my natural habitat.
Everyone I know that’s been to Woodbine waxes poetic about the place. Its grounds have hosted turf legends like Secretariat and Northern Dancer. Its flagship event, the Queen’s Plate, is Canada’s version of the Kentucky Derby.
I’d already planned to take the trip from my downtown Toronto hotel before I made it to town. Once I arrived at the conference, though, PlayOntario’s Dave Briggs (a colleague) soared up my “favourite Canadian” rankings.
Briggs got in touch with folks at Woodbine on my behalf. Woodbine, in turn, responded by rolling out the proverbial red carpet for me Thursday afternoon. What transpired was some of the most fun I’ve ever had at any racetrack.
‘In the gate’ and behind the scenes at Woodbine
I arrived at Woodbine just over an hour before the first post. Martha Wakely, Woodbine’s manager of racing operations and horsemen concierge services, shuttled me around the backstretch. We eventually wound up at the starting gate for the Thursday opener.
Ian Ross, the head starter, greeted me warmly, as everyone did all day. We talked for a few minutes before he exclaimed, “I want to put you in the gate!”
The work that starters and gate crews do is some of the toughest at any track. It’s their job to make sure horses are shuttled to the start, loaded safely and sent on their way without incident. These men and women are courageous and incredibly skilled.
Ultimately, I got an up-close look at the first-race field, including my best bet of the day, High Heat. All went smoothly at the start, and it was amazing to hear the chatter between riders and the gate crew.
Not so fabulous, however, was the race result.
My best bet hit the front at the top of the stretch but was caught in the final strides, finishing second. That was as close as I’d get to cashing a ticket all day, but this trip proved to be about much more.
Horse racing is good for the soul
Horse racing is in a weird place.
Declining foal crops, horses running less each year and other circumstances in the industry make for strange times. The Belmont Stakes day program featured five Grade 1 races with fields of six horses or fewer. And that’s far from the only circuit with product issues these days.
Woodbine isn’t immune to the problems affecting everyone else. Its Thursday program, which started shortly after 5 pm EST, ran up against “twilight racing” cards at Belmont and Churchill Downs.
Still, given the atmosphere and spirit on the property, it’s tough not to have a great time.
I met track announcer Robert Geller before the second race, won by a 17-1 longshot. Every member of the Woodbine team encountered was exceptionally welcoming and kind, from those involved with racing operations to tellers and casino staff.
I ate dinner at the Woodbine Club, which looks down onto the three-surface track from the fifth floor. Around that time, the race day feature went down, won by Chuck Willis. A turf sprinter, Chuck Willis has gone from a one-time claiming horse to one of the fastest runners on the grounds. We’ll likely see him in some of the meet’s bigger turf sprints this summer and fall.
The biggest lesson in all of this isn’t complex. Sometimes, a business just needs to keep it simple. Treat your customers well and show a commitment to the product and people will keep coming back.
Now, at a time horse racing desperately needs people to keep returning, I can’t emphasize that point strongly enough.
Thanks to the Woodbine crew, fans
Dave Briggs dropping my name to the people at Woodbine was a first-class move. I owe him one when he comes to my neck of the woods in August for another conference.
I’m also indebted to everyone I met at Woodbine for showing a travelling writer a good time.
To Martha, Ian, the gate crew, Robert, Lindsay Bax, Karl Lagerborg, Tim Lawson, Wendy McLaren, Jamie Dykstra and Jeff Bratt, among others: Thank you. I hope to be back someday!