Incoming Woodbine CEO Outlines His Vision For Future Of Ontario Horse Racing

Written By Dave Briggs on June 27, 2023 - Last Updated on November 14, 2023
Michael Copeland

Ontario’s horse racing industry faces a range of challenges amidst an explosion of gambling in the province. But, the incoming CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group said he is bullish on the future.

Michael Copeland (above), Woodbine’s current president commercial, will take over from current Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson in October of this year. Recently, Copeland spoke to PlayCanada at length about his vision for the future of Ontario’s original gambling game.

“It’s about really building on that foundation that’s in place now,” Copeland said. “I’ve been with Woodbine for two years and the operations are in great shape. Racing is sort of best-in-class and the facilities are in great shape. And there’s so much that we’ve been building in terms of our property development plans, our introduction to the single-event sports wagering and integrating into that our relationship with the casino, which is taking on a whole new dimension.

“There’s a lot of great pieces in place, and I think it’s about: How do we realize the vision we’ve had for each of those pieces, make sure that we execute on them, leave ourselves open to identify more and what presents itself next?”

Copeland said it’s all “an evolution” of the work Lawson, and others before him, started.

“I think the organization is ready to push into these new areas and it’s my job to lead that,” Copeland said.

Betting on horse racing on Canadian sports betting apps coming this summer

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.

Copeland previously told PlayCanada that he is hopeful betting on horses via Ontario sports betting sites will be allowed by Aug. 20 at places like Bet365 horse racing. That’s the date of the King’s Plate, the most important race on the Canadian thoroughbred calendar.

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. Woodbine also missed out on its own major event. Harness racing’s $1 million Pepsi North America Cup was held on June 17 at Woodbine Mohawk Park. Though a solid $5.2 million was bet on the card, there’s no telling what the number could have been if betting on it had been available on sportsbook apps.

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

Exposure to sports bettors will be key to horse racing’s growth

Exploring what's standing in the way of horse racing being featured on sportsbook apps in Canada and what Woodbine is doing about it.
(Michael Burns / Woodbine)

There are 48 Ontario online casino operators that are currently live in the province. Of those, 30 offer online sports betting.

Copeland said having horse racing featured on online sportsbooks will be a positive development.

“When that happens, we think racing is going to do very well,” he 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.

“For the core [horse racing bettor], we have the opportunity to continue to build and strengthen the way that we’re offering the product today. So, we understand that our core is strong, but we need to always be thinking, ‘How can we improve?’ So, we will continue to do that. But it’s incredibly exciting because we’re going to get this new demographic of customers coming in through single-event sports wagering.”

Copeland said it is important to respect and honour horse racing’s long tradition in Canada. “But, you can’t simply rely on tradition,” he said. “I think the sports gaming operators are very innovative, very energetic and forward thinking and so it’s seeing the cues they’re offering and taking advice and direction where it makes sense for us and what we’re trying to do. But, we’ve got a whole host of peers out there that we can learn from certainly try to do that.”

Horse racing has long had competition from the grey market

Initially, the horse racing industry feared the competition from online sports betting in Canada. But the more industry leaders thought about it, the more they began to see the upside. After all, Ontarians have been betting illegally through the “grey” unregulated online gambling sector for perhaps as long as 20 years.

“There always has been competition,” Copeland said. “It’s just that we haven’t been aware of the competition [when it was in the grey market]. So, to some extent, it’s helpful to have [a regulated market] in front of us and have it be transparent. Certainly, it is competition [for horse racing] that we’ve been wary of and conscious of. But I think our approach has been that we’re not afraid of competition. We just want a fair ability to compete, and I think horse racing holds up with any gaming opportunity, if in fact, it isn’t right at the top and proven over centuries.

“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. What we’ve been doing is working on integrating into those online sportsbooks. And we’re having conversations with the regulars in that regard. We’re hopeful that we have some positive news in that regard in the next short while.

Woodbine still wants to offer retail sports betting

Woodbine has long campaigned to offer physical sportsbooks at its prime sites: Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton, its Greenwood Teletheatre in downtown Toronto and the WEGZ Teletheatre in Vaughan.

However, the province has focused on the rollout of online sportsbooks first. Only a small number of retail sportsbooks, under the control of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, have been allowed, so far, in the province’s casinos.

Copeland said little traction has been made on bringing retail sports betting to Woodbine locations.

“Right now, only the casinos have the ability to offer retail sportsbooks, and they’re largely doing so through kiosk-based operations,” Copeland said. “We’ve been very clear that we think that we are the best choice for land-based retail sportsbooks. We’re the only entity in Ontario that’s operated physical wagering. So, we’ve got experience and knowledge and all of the safe-play protocols and policies and procedures in place. So, we’re having conversations in that regard to see where that might lead. There’s nothing to report right now, but we think that there’s an opportunity.”

$1 billion Woodbine Casino will drive people to the racetrack

Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto

Woodbine’s property — located a few blocks from Pearson Airport — is currently anchored by Woodbine Racetrack and the attached Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto.

On June 20, Great Canadian opened its $1 billion expanded gambling facility. It is the largest casino in Canada. When fully completed, the 328,000-square foot Great Canadian Toronto casino will feature:

  • 4,800 slot machines
  • 145 table games
  • a 400-room hotel
  • a 5,000-person entertainment centre
  • 11 restaurants
  • retail

Copeland said the casino will drive people to the site and give Woodbine the chance to expose them to horse racing. The new hotel overlooks the racetrack on one side.

“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.”

Property development at Woodbine is key to horse racing’s future

At some 780 acres, Woodbine owns one of the largest undeveloped plots of land in Toronto.

Past ideas for development of the Woodbine property have included major sports facilities for professional teams, a GO Train station, a retail and entertainment district, office space and residential. Copeland said Woodbine leadership is focusing considerable energy on property development.

“We don’t have specifics, yet, to announce, but there’s been a lot of really good conversations going on,” he said. “There’s some detailed plans that are being developed. And so, it’s just going through the proper processes to make sure that we get all of the right approvals, that we talked to the right partners that we’re going to work with in terms of developing these areas of property. It’s residential, it’s light commercial and there’s going to be a lot of employment. There’s parkland, there’s sports facilities property.

“In a relatively short term, I’d say the next few years, we’re gonna see the fruits of those labours, and then we’re gonna see the benefit of those investments. Then, people [in the horse racing industry] will, I think, be able to better understand what we’ve been doing and why because they’ll see the revenues coming in. And they’ll see us spending those revenues back on the horse community, because that’s our intention.”

Copeland said he understands the plight of the horsepeople

Standardbred racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park
(New Image Media)

Despite being a leader in Canadian horse racing and a driver of the entire industry in Ontario, Woodbine has had a sometimes-fractious relationship with the people that race horses. In the thoroughbred industry, that friction has primarily revolved around purses for races and how Woodbine has split the money between races for open horses and those restricted to the Ontario-breds that directly support the province’s breeding industry.

The province has 15 horse racing tracks. Economic studies have shown that the Ontario horse racing industry supports some 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

Copeland said he wants the horse racing industry to know he understands their plight.

“First and foremost, I understand their situation,” Copeland said. “My father-in-law was an owner and a trainer of thoroughbreds. So, I spend time talking to him about the realities of his business. It’s a very, very difficult business. So, I do understand it from a sole, relatively small owner/trainer situation… Success for me is about success for them. And that has to be balanced with near-term and long-term. We’re trying to do both.

“I think my strength is being able to look forward and to first determine where it is that we want to be, and then line up the pieces that need to be in place for us to get there. So, that’s what I’m doing now. The intention is to put the Ontario racing community in a much, much stronger and more sustainable position than it already is, and the beneficiaries of that are going to be the horsepeople. So, I’d say I’ve got their backs. It’s a lot to ask somebody to trust, especially when they have their own skin in the game, but that’s what I’m aiming to do.”

Woodbine’s success will grow horse racing

Copeland said Woodbine management and the horse community are working toward the same goal. If Woodbine succeeds, so will horse racing.

“We all want the owners and the trainers and everybody working in the industry to be successful,” Copeland said. “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. Now, some of that requires investment in the future to create an even better tomorrow. We understand that for a lot of people in the racing community on the backstretch, tomorrow’s a long time. It’s a long way away and they’re thinking day-to-day, so we respect that.

“What we try to do is support them as much as possible in the now. And that is by providing healthy purses and opportunities to race, but also recognizing that any investments we make is really designed to increase the support we’re able to give.”

Communication with the industry will be key

As a partner in that success, Copeland pledged to better engage the horse racing community.

“Certainly, more communication is better,” he said. “And that’s something that we have discussed internally is finding ways for more opportunities to communicate. It is very complicated, because… the issues we deal with are so multi layered, so complicated. Unless you’re sort of in it full time, it’s really difficult to explain it and get the full picture and then what that can lead to is a mistaken understanding of all of the variables at play and then people don’t appreciate why we have to make the decisions we do so sometimes it can create more confusion and more dissension.

“[But] it’s always the right decision to talk to people in the game and to listen, even more importantly. Often there’s things that you learned that you didn’t expect from them. So, I think it is about continuing to listen to the people within the industry, understanding that it’s a passionate group, but then, trusting in your own vision, your own judgment in saying that we have the best of intentions. When you combine that with ambition, you can do some really special things.”

Photo by Michael Burns / Woodbine
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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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