Horse racing ready to be a major sports betting player, says Woodbine CEO

As Ontario gears up to launch its regulated online gaming and sports betting market on April 4, Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO Jim Lawson is adamant that racetracks and entertainment centres are ready and waiting to be a key part of the rollout.

“We’ve got the deepest physical sportsbook localities in the entire province when you think of Woodbine, Mohawk, Greenwood, WEGZ,” Lawson told Canadian Thoroughbred. “There is an opportunity for the government and for the racetrack industry.”

Lawson, a longtime advocate for horse racing’s role in Canadian gaming, emphasized that Woodbine group seems to tick all the boxes for what Ontario and Canada appear to be looking for in a licensed operator. It is a Canadian company with a nonprofit mandate, good technology, and a familiar relationship with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).

“There’s no reason whatsoever to think that sportsbooks should be going to casinos or just to casinos,” he added. “We acknowledge there could be competition. We’re not looking for exclusives on sportsbooks, but we’re basically turnkey on sportsbooks.”

On top of its own 48 Champions Teletheatres, Woodbine-operated HorsePlayer Interactive (HPI) has deals with all the tracks in Ontario, offering the potential for sportsbooks at tracks around the province, from Ottawa to Hamilton to London.

Lawson noted that makes Woodbine group is a strong candidate to set up on-location sportsbooks across the province to provide the greatest return on the proceeds of sports betting for the government. However, he admitted concern that Ontario’s model may shut horse racing out of the sports betting game by focusing on casinos, a model chiefly demonstrated in Las Vegas and the U.S. but by no means universal across other jurisdictions. 

“A lot of the sports betting operators across the world find their origins in horse racing when you think of the big names like William Hill and Tabcorp and others,” Lawson added. “They are all horse racing operators… I think there’s a misconception that somehow sportsbooks and sports betting goes with casinos… If you think of the ways that sports betting operates in the United Kingdom, in particular, and in Ireland and France and Australia, it’s a coordinated sportsbook… It’s all horse racing and sports betting. It’s not this concept that somewhere casinos have sportsbooks.”

Lawson stressed there are multiple advantages of ensuring horse racing is at the sports betting table. Not only would it prevent damage to the racing industry, but it would help to reduce its reliance on government subsidies and support.

“There’s a real opportunity for the government to earn money and, at the same time, support the horse racing industry and start to chip away at eliminating altogether the subsidy for horse racing. Put horse racing on independent, healthier grounds.”

Woodbine has already seen success in getting Canada’s single-event sports betting bill, passed in late August, amended to ensure racetracks’ own pari-mutuel model continued to be viable. “Woodbine worked very hard to lobby and have the government understand that unfettered, unconditional sports betting coming into Canada would destroy the horse racing business,” said Lawson. “They listened. They pulled pari-mutuel wagering out of the sports betting legislation. That was a good start.”

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Lawson emphasized that Woodbine Entertainment Group could be ready to open bricks-and-mortar sportsbook locations almost immediately if authorized to do so, and noted that the group’s Champions lounges in particular are virtually already there in terms of the infrastructure required. He would like Ontario to follow the New Jersey model that does not require a casino on-site at the racetrack, and suggested that either Woodbine group could operate its own sportsbook or the group could unite with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) or other partners to ingrate HPI into their existing operations.

Either way, he concluded, ensuring horse racing is brought firmly into the fold is “critical” to its future.

“We need to play a role in sports betting and we will. We’re working with the regulators to ensure that we can integrate. But we’re serving a major retail sports betting network on a silver platter that will generate huge amounts of revenue to the government.”

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