04/10/2014 02:27 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Woodbine president/CEO Eaves optimistic about horse-racing's future

TORONTO - Nick Eaves' dire concerns have been replaced by optimism.

The president and chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group is feeling good about horse-racing's future with the 2014 thoroughbred season set to begin Saturday. That wasn't the case two years ago when Eaves painted a bleak future for the sport following former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty's controversial decision to axe the Slots at Racetracks program.

The revenue-sharing agreement generated $345 million annually that was split between track operators and horse owners/breeders. The ensuing cash shortfall resulted in some track closures and many in the industry to scale back operations. That included WEG, which laid off more than 100 employees, roughly 25 per cent of salaried positions, at its two tracks (Woodbine and Mohawk in Campbellville, Ont.).

But with current premier Kathleen Wynne pledging $500 million over the next five years to the industry, Eaves says horse racing is at least on solid ground.

"I'd say the industry is stabilized with some confidence there are better days ahead," Eaves said. "It's been two extraordinarily difficult years for everybody because the entire industry has been restructured and downsized and that's been very, very painful for thousands of people.

"We're looking forward now as the new five-year plan with the government will bring some stability to all sectors of the industry."

But Eaves says the key to long-term viability is the integration of horse-racing into the province's gaming strategy.

"The key is going to be decisions made on the gaming front by the province and OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.) that really feature racetracks, at least those racetracks in markets where there's the ability to grow the business," Eaves said. "We're more than prepared to partner with them to do it but that partnership has to involve an outcome that's of mutual benefit to the racing industry and province.

"We have to get there in order for a really vibrant future to be ahead of us but I think that's an achievable outcome."

Once again, the iconic $1-million Queen's Plate, North America's oldest continuously run stakes event, will highlight the 133-day race schedule at Woodbine that will run through December. The 155th running of the Queen's Plate, the first gem of the Canadian Triple Crown, is slated for July 6.

Woodbine will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the great Northern Dancer's Plate win, the final event in the legendary sire's stellar racing career. Northern Dancer became the first Canadian-bred and owned horse to win the Kentucky Derby, then added the Preakness before a third-place finish at the Belmont ended his U.S. Triple Crown aspirations.

"Oh yes, we'll certainly be building promotions around that," Eaves said. "The great news about the Queen's Plate after 154 runnings is there are so many pieces, elements and traditions that work and Northern Dancer is definitely part of that."

There will also be racing in 2014 at Fort Erie Racetrack with the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second gem of the Triple Crown, being the feature event on the 37-day race schedule at the venerable 116-year-old oval.

The $500,000 Breeders' Stakes, a mile-and-a-half turf event, will cap the Triple Crown at Woodbine on Aug. 17. Wando was the last Canadian Triple Crown winner, achieving the feat in 2003.

The $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, the first leg of Canada's Triple Tiara, will go June 15. So, too, will the $150,000 Plate Trial, Canada's top prep race for the Queen's Plate.

The $1-million Woodbine Mile turf race is scheduled for Sept. 14. Wise Dan, U.S. racing's reigning horse of the year, has dominated this event the last two years.

The card will also feature the Grade 1, $300,000 Northern Dancer Stakes for three-year-olds and upwards and Grade 2, $300,000 Canadian Stakes for fillies and mares three years old and up.

The Grade 1, $1 million Pattison Canadian International, a mile-and-a-half turf race, is set for Oct. 19. Also scheduled that day are Grade 1, $500,000 E.P. Taylor Stakes for fillies and mares, and Grade 2, $300,000 Nearctic Stakes, a six-furlong turf sprint.

Individually, American trainer Mark Casse and Mexican-born jockey Luis Contreras will be the ones to beat this season.

Casse captured his seventh straight trainer's crown and eighth overall last year, finishing with 85 wins from 412 starts. Robert Tiller was second with 62 victories while Reade Baker was third with 54.

Casse also topped all trainers with earnings of over $5.2 million and will send two hopefuls go postward Saturday.

Contreras, twice Canada's top jockey, lead all Woodbine riders last season with 168 wins from 879 starts. But Brazilian Eurico Rosa da Silva claimed the money crown with $8,131,932 in earnings, just ahead of Contreras ($8,128,323).

Contreras is scheduled to ride eight horses Saturday while Da Silva, a 2010 Sovereign Award winner, was named on seven.

Patrick Husbands of Brampton, Ont., is expected to seriously challenge for this year's riding crown. Husbands, seven times Canada's top jockey, missed four months recovering from a broken leg and fractured ankle suffered when his mount collapsed just past the finish line.

Husbands is scheduled to ride four horses Saturday.

Emma-Jayne Wilson of Brampton, Ont., North America's top apprentice in '05, will see her first action at Woodbine on Sunday. She's scheduled to ride Asserting Bear, a horse trained by Canadian Reade Baker, in the Grade 1 US$750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Saturday.

Jockey Chantal Sutherland-Kruse returns to Woodbine on a full-time basis. The 38-year-old Winnipeg native retired in October 2012 at the Toronto oval but resumed racing last July at Del Mar racetrack in southern California.

"I'm excited," she said. "It's good to be back.

"I'm out here now looking for two-year-olds and hoping that I can find three good horses. If I can find three good horses, the rest should fall into place."

Sutherland-Kruse began her career at Woodbine in 2000. She was named Canada's top apprentice jockey in 2001 and '02 and returns after spending the last three years mostly competing at tracks in southern California.

She's scheduled to ride four horses Saturday.

"I think this is just another example of the appeal of the Woodbine racing program," Eaves said. "We've got a full season of racing and offer $57 million in purses that attract the best jockeys from North America, the best local horses and many of the best horses in North America for our key stakes races.

"Chantal has had success in other places but I think she has identified there's a really solid racing program here. She knows she's going to get to ride some fantastic horses and purse levels here are pretty good."