04/17/2013 03:38 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT

After tough off-season, Woodbine head Eaves looking forward to 2013 season

TORONTO - The start of the 2013 thoroughbred horse-racing season is a welcomed distraction for Nick Eaves.

After a harsh and uncertain off-season, the president and chief executive officer of the Woodbine Entertainment Group can't wait to turn his focus to actual horse racing. On Friday, Woodbine hosts the Sovereign Awards to honour the thoroughbred industry's top performers in 2012 before opening its 133-date 2013 racing campaign Saturday.

"It has been so difficult for everyone in our industry," Eaves said. "The changes that were imposed are now a year old . . . and will take more time to really understand what they're going to mean.

"To have those (Sovereign Awards and start of 2013 thoroughbred season) on the immediate horizon, I know all of us here are thrilled to be able to focus on them.''

The focus was clearly on racing Wednesday when 87 horses were entered for the Opening Day 10-race card, highlighted by the featured $150,000 Star Shoot Stakes, at six furlongs, for three-year-old fillies.

Last year, then Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sent shockwaves through the horse-racing industry by axing a revenue-sharing agreement with racetracks that gave them a cut of the slot profits. That program — which ended officially in March — generated $345 million annually that was split between track operators and horse owners and breeders.

The cash shortfall was expected to result in the closing of many tracks and force the ones that remained to make do with substantially less. Many in the industry were forced to dramatically scale back operations, including WEG.

After reaching a two-year transitional funding deal with the Ontario government to continue racing at its two racetracks — Woodbine in Toronto and Mohawk in Campbelleville, Ont. — WEG laid off more than 100 employees, roughly 25 per cent of salaried positions.

Fort Erie Racetrack wasn't expected to open after the 2012 season as a result of McGinty's decision. But the 116-year-old track earned a reprieve with its one-year transitional funding deal with the government.

As a result, there will be a traditional Canadian Triple Crown in 2013, starting with the 154th running of the $1-million Queen's Plate on July 7 at Woodbine. The $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes will take place at Fort Erie Racetrack in late July before Woodbine hosts the third and final jewel, the $500,000 Breeders' Stakes turf event in August.

"In terms of those brands and historical traditions that are such an important part of the thoroughbred racing calendar, the fact there will be again a Triple Crown that customers can focus on is exciting," Eaves said. "Even though we've had to change our operating model here at Woodbine . . . we're focusing as much as we ever have, including financially, on the Queen's Plate because it's always been the marquee on the calendar."

But the harsh reality is there will be fewer racing dates this year at Woodbine (23 in fact) than last year but that's the case across the province. Eaves said in 2013 there will be just over 800 total horse-racing days compared to roughly 1,500 last year.

"Obviously when you reduce something by half there are going to be a lot of consequences," he said.

Fortunately for Woodbine, it has been able to maintain its average daily purse. It also has the same number of horse people competing this year with the same number of horses stabled there and training as 2012.

As a result, the hope remains racing fields in 2013 will remain as high as they were last year.

"We're doing everything we can to provide an environment for field size to be maintained and hopefully grow," Eaves said. "Despite all the change that has come, we're maintaining that average daily purse so we've done the one thing the really drives those decisions more than anything and that's create a financial environment that should be compelling for people.''

Woodbine is also taking a calculated gamble this season by offering a win takeout of 14.95 per cent, the lowest percentage in North America. Takeout is the amount of money kept by the track before winning bettors are paid.

The reduction of the percentage is aimed at increasing payouts, giving bettors more money to play with and therefore boosting betting volume or handle.

"It's only successful financially for us if we generate more wagering, the customer can't lose," Eaves said. "There's no certainty, which is why didn't do it earlier, but we think now is the right time to be doing it.

"We need to be finding ways to show our customers and hopefully new ones the value of our product. We really need to earning their business.''

Eaves is encouraged that new Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne has shown a willingness to work with he with provincial horse-racing officials in reaching an equitable solution for both sides. In March, Wynne announced the horse-racing industry would be integrated into a provincial gambling strategy with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to find new revenue streams.

The hope is approval will ultimately be received for casinos to be expanded at Woodbine and other racetracks with shared revenues resulting.

"Woodbine feels there should be a connection between gaming revenue that the tracks in this model earn and the use of those revenues back to support sustainable horse racing," Eaves said. "If you subscribe to that model, which we do, then why not accept there's going to be economics generated through gaming facilities at racetracks?

"Why not set it up such that it's the racetrack owner-operator that's benefiting from those economics and therefore re-investing the economics back in this very large Ontario industry . . . it makes so much sense.''

But the Ontario horse-racing industry is literally on the clock because the government's transitional funding agreements with various racetracks vary from one to three years.

''We're going to work with the provincial government, we're going to take the premier and the government on their view, which is racing needs to be re-integrated back with the province's gaming strategy," Eaves said. "That's the only outcome that will ensure a sustainable future for horse racing across the province.

"It's been a very difficult year for everybody in the industry . . . hopefully the weeks and months and years ahead will be better because sensible decisions are being made based on people and jobs and economic development. We've got a strong argument in that regard and thankfully we've now got a group of people that seems willing to listen.''

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