TORONTO — Jim Lawson was hardly breathing a huge sigh of relief Thursday after announcing live horse-racing in Ontario will resume June 14.
The chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment said he received confirmation to resume live horse racing without spectators next month. The announcement coincided with the Ontario government's unveiling of its three-step plan to gradually ease restrictions across the province during the course of the summer.
That will be based on vaccination rates and key public health and health-care indicators. Golf, tennis, basketball and other outdoor sports are set to reopen across Ontario on Saturday.
"I'm relieved only in the sense it gives some certainty to horse people to let them plan," Lawson said. "But with the measures we have in place for racing and our safety record, it shouldn't have taken this long."
The 2021 standardbred season will restart June 14 at Woodbine Mohawk Park and continue its usual schedule of racing on five days weekly (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday). The thoroughbred campaign will open June 18 -- roughly two weeks later than originally scheduled -- at Woodbine Racetrack and continue through June 20 for the opening weekend.
Racing will then be held four days per week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday).
Lawson contends horse racing shouldn't have been stopped when the Ontario government issued its provide-wide shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 1, Queen's Park announced a four-week shutdown that was ultimately extended until June 2.
"We're distanced, we're masked and we're outdoors," Lawson said. "We're also a sport that's monitored with safety protocols, procedures and testing and they (government/health officials) don't seem to be paying any attention to that.
"It's so highly frustrating . . . the lack of attention, the lack of respect for what amounts to thousands and thousands of people in this industry in this province. I don't think they're going to be relieved, I think they're going to be mad. It doesn't matter what I think, the people in this industry are going to be upset."
Woodbine Entertainment also announced Thursday it's prepared to accelerate the resumption of live racing sooner if the Ontario government enters the first step of its reopening plan earlier than expected. The organization also confirmed it has received permission from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to host qualifier races at Woodbine Mohawk Park starting May 27.
Lawson expects the delay to the '21 racing seasons will have an impact upon on Woodbine's respective stakes schedules. The $1-million Queen's Plate, for example, had been scheduled for Aug. 22, three weeks after the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks and $150,000 Plate Trial, two key prep events.
"We're going to come to grips with that in the next day or two," he said. "There's a likely impact upon the preps for the races and therefore the actual running of our main events.
"That too, is going to be frustrating but we're going to try to stay as consistent with our schedule as we can. But we might determine we have no choice but to move them back slightly."
The absence of standardbred and thoroughbred racing in Ontario has resulted in many breeders, trainers and riders/drivers leaving Ontario for tracks south of the border. Lawson, though, is confident Woodbine will be able to get the departed to ultimately return.
"The only silver lining in this is we now have an extra couple of weeks to recruit them," Lawson said. "I think they will come back, I think people will want to come back to Woodbine, they just want certainty.
"We'll get a condition book out very shortly and let people plan."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press