CAMPBELLVILLE, Ont. — Canada’s biggest harness-racing track is getting a facelift. Woodbine Entertainment pledged over $10 million for Mohawk Racetrack on June 9 for upgrades to the facility that will allow it to offer year-round harness racing as early as 2018.
Woodbine chief executive officer Jim Lawson made the announcement prior to the draw for the $1-million Pepsi North America Cup, Canada’s richest harness race.
"We recognize more than ever we’re in a competitive sports and entertainment world and we can’t stand still," Lawson said. "You need to invest money to attract people and that’s what we’re going to do.
"We’re just going to make it a really nice place to come. What we need to do to sustain this sport in this province for the next 30, 40 years is invest in it and that’s what we’ve committed to do."
The harness-racing season runs from April to October with races run at both Woodbine and Mohawk. Starting next year, Mohawk will be exclusively dedicated to standardbred racing with the ability to run events year-round.
The expectation now is the harness track at Woodbine will be converted into a second turf course at the Toronto oval. All Lawson would say is Woodbine will announce its plans at the Queen’s Plate draw June 28.
"It will probably be a thoroughbred surface," Lawson said.
Construction will begin this fall and is scheduled to be completed by next spring. The upgrades include winterizing the grandstand, race paddock and maintenance facilities, and new glass windows across the dining room and VIP suites.
Harness racing has had a presence in Toronto for over 100 years, with the Pepsi North America Cup starting up in ’84 at the former Greenwood Raceway. But Lawson said racing, like many facets of business, is changing.
"We were hesitant 10 or 15 years ago in terms of separating it just because of the power of the Toronto wagering dollar," he said. "What’s happening today is 75 per cent of our wagering is done via the Internet.
"I just think the world has changed…so many of our customers are in the U.S., in Australia, in Hong Kong."
And Lawson said Woodbine also listened to its horse people, many of whom reside near Campbellville.
"One thing we heard loud and clear from our horsemen was they don’t like fighting that Toronto traffic on a January or February night in a snowstorm," Lawson said.
Driver Jody Jamieson is a resident of Puslinch, Ont., roughly a 15-minute drive from Mohawk. He said he supports the move.
"If the purses are good enough where people can make a living and pay their mortgages, make their truck and trailer payments and be able to reinvest…that’s really all it’s about," he said. "I won’t be riding thoroughbreds any time soon, I’ll always be a harness guy.
"As long as I can continue to race at Mohawk, and hopefully it’s year round, it’s a great situation for me."
Lawson also unveiled Woodbine Entertainment’s new corporate branding. The Woodbine track will retain its name while Mohawk will become Woodbine at Mohawk Park.