It was announced today that Woodbine will be switching their Polytrack surface for a Tapeta synthetic after the 2015 Thoroughbred meet. Unlike other recent major surface changes, WEG has made their decision thinking about a certain group of people who are often ignored in this industry: bettors.
WEG's Chairman of the Board Jim Lawson was quoted as saying “We also considered racing fans and horseplayers through this process. Field size, the number of quality races and wagering on Woodbine’s Thoroughbred racing product has grown appreciably in the synthetic track era. We see those metrics continuing to improve with the installation of Tapeta.” This is new.
When synthetic's first started coming around in North America in the mid-2000s, the primary reason for the switch was equine safety. We wanted to reduce the number of equine breakdowns, and we did. I still have my doubts about how much safer synthetics truly are, but I cannot dispute that breakdown rates have gone down. As the synthetic era went on, we had an interesting situation going on. Small handle players complained about betting on synthetic races, horsemen complained about the chaotic nature of the surfaces' biases, but everywhere you looked, synthetic tracks were seeing handle gains. With the large fields that synthetic tracks offered, bettors responded positively and supported the product.
Somewhere along the lines, people realized that the Breeders' Cup wasn't going to synthetic tracks anymore, and somebody at Keeneland, the prime example of successful synthetic tracks, decided the Breeders' Cup should be at Keeneland. Then, someone at Del Mar came to the same decision. So two highly successful synthetic tracks made a decision that they should ditch the surface that has been with them through some of their most successful seasons in history to get the Breeders' Cup. I don't think it can be argued that those decisions were made for the benefit of customers. They were made for the sake of having the Breeders' Cup.
Keeneland has already had one meet on their new dirt surface, and the results weren't shocking at all. All-sources handle dropped 12% and field size dropped 14.6%. The second Keeneland dirt meet is coming up in April and Del Mar's first dirt meet starts in July. We'll see if we see similar declines.
And now we get back to Woodbine. Woodbine had two options for a surface switch: traditional dirt, or a new synthetic. After seeing the consistent handle gains that came with the Polytrack era, Woodbine chose to stick with synthetic. Woodbine made themselves the first track to make a customer-based surface decision.
Customer-based decisions have been a breath of fresh air in Ontario in the past few years. Tracks no longer race head-to-head, low-takeout wagers have been introduced, and we've seen handle go up. On the harness side of the province, six of the eight alliance tracks saw an increase in handle/race in 2014, and we saw Mohawk and Western Fair set all-time, single day handle records. Ontario used to be just another slots jurisdiction, and has matured in a province that makes an effort to be horseplayer-friendly. Woodbine's Tapeta decision is another piece of evidence towards that conclusion.