Back to what I'm here to talk about.
2014 was a pretty good year for racing in Ontario (surprisingly.) Let's talk about what happened.
Thoroughbred racing in Ontario did not have a great year. The first month or so of the Woodbine season was disastrous. The horse population was tiny with several trainers staying in Florida and Kentucky a bit longer than usual, the handle was poor, and it was pretty concerning. However, the stalls began filling and things picked up. Overall handle for the meet was down a bit, 2.9% total decrease and 3.67% average handle/race decline, but it could have been a lot worse. There were several strong individual events: we had a Woodbine Mile record handle, Lexie Lou's wins in the Woodbine Oaks and Queen's Plate made her a well-known racing name (her second to California Chrome at Del Mar also helped), the CTHS Sales Stakes saw an increase in handle, and a new closing day handle record was set. The season ended strongly, and overall I think it was a successful season.
Fort Erie saw a decline in total handle, however, average handle/race was up 3% on track and 2% off track. They also saw a 6% on food & beverage and program sales, indicating an increase in attendance. The second Twilight Tuesday Prince of Wales did $1,768,500, a terrific handle for the eight-race card. They had a significant lack of horses throughout the meet due to the fact that the racing season was not actually confirmed as a go until the day before racing started. The increase in handle/race is a very good sign.
Harness racing in Ontario lost some dates this year, but there was growth in handle. In Canada, total handle for harness racing was $418,526,798, an increase of 5.27% from 2013's $397,583,083. Average handle/race was $31,608, up 13.66% from last year's $27,810. Lots of big things happened in the province, both Mohawk and Western Fair broke their single night handle records, Grand River Raceway saw a 6.7% total handle increase and a 17.8% increase in handle/race, a very impressive figure considering the Elora oval saw an 11.5% total increase in 2013. Georgian Downs revived one of their signature events, the $100,000 Earl Rowe Memorial Trot, Woodbine revived the Fall Four Stakes events. Southwestern Ontario developed a circuit of Dresden, Sarnia and Leamington, Kawartha Downs had a solid summer-fall meet with strong attendance. Overall, harness racing in the province seems to be moving in the right direction.
Ajax Downs from an all-Tuesday schedule to Sundays for half the meet and Tuesdays for the other half. Revenue wise, I have no clue how this affected them; although Tuesdays drive much more handle, the on track handle on Sundays is significantly higher. It's weird. I worked for Ajax this year, and I was at the races as much as I could be. I thought the season overall was very strong, but I really have a tough time judging what success at Ajax is.
Ontario has made a lot of progress since the slots program was cancelled, but there is still a ways to go. The takeout in our province is still way too high. Only WEG, Fort Erie and Grand River offer WPS takeout under 20% (14.95% for Woodbine Thoroughbred, 16.95% for the rest) and at most tracks your only low takeout option is a 15% Pick 4 or maybe a Super Hi-5. There are not a lot of attractive options in the province. Of course, a complete reformation of the takeout structure would be nice, I'd like to see 10% WPS and 12-15% on all exotics, but I doubt that is going to happen anytime soon. If we could equal the North American lows, (14.5% WPS, 18.25% Exactors, 19% Tris and Supers, 12% Doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4) I think the province would see significant growth quickly. In harness racing, I would love to see added distance races tried. Yonkers recently did 1 1/14 mile races with 12 horse fields; I think Ontario should try the same. I don't think it would hurt at all. Several of the smaller tracks need more simulcast and ADW exposure; I cannot watch or wager on Hiawatha or Dresden on HPI, or at any of my local racetracks. How can tracks like that grow without the added exposure? I hope Woodbine keeps a synthetic surface after 2015; I fear dirt will lead to handle declines similar to the ones Keeneland saw. I'd like to see our tracks get on TVG. I know WEG's races and Western Fair's Monday/Tuesday cards are aired on TVG, but getting Fort Erie, Grand River, Ajax, Georgian, Flamboro, etc. on air would be a big boost.
I think Ontario puts on a great show for all breeds, and I think our racing has huge potential to be a top level product. Things have been moving in the right direction; the industry just needs to make sure they keep things going and take the necessary steps to make racing in Ontario the best it can possibly be. Hopefully 2015 sees a few of these steps taken.