Wood­bine looks to get things back on track

New sea­son of­fers some rea­sons for hope amid chal­leng­ing time for sport

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - KATIE LAMB SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

The thor­ough­breds are back in town.

Satur­day marks the start­ing of the 133-day thor­ough­bred horse rac­ing sea­son at Wood­bine Race­track, and de­spite the chal­lenges the in­dus­try faces, a pal­pa­ble sense of op­ti­mism is awash at the Rex­dale track.

There will be a new Queen’s Plate cham­pion crowned for the 158th time on July 2, and Hall of Fame trainer Roger At­tfield once again finds him­self with the early favourite for the Plate in his barn with Tiz A Slam.

If the son of Tiznow, bred and owned by Chiefs­wood Sta­bles in Schomberg, can find the win­ner’s cir­cle in the track’s mar­quee race, it will give At­tfield a record-break­ing nine wins in the Plate. Mark Casse, who has been named out­stand­ing trainer in Canada eight times and is nom­i­nated for the 2016 out­stand­ing trainer Sovereign award (to be handed out Thurs­day night) has a nine-horse ar­mada nom­i­nated for the Plate, in­clud­ing last year’s stand­out ju­ve­nile colts King and his Court and State of Honor. The for­mer has ar­rived in Toronto af­ter a cou­ple of lack­lus­tre races in Florida and Ken­tucky, while the lat­ter fin­ished a solid sec­ond place in the Florida Derby at Gulf­stream Park, earn­ing him a spot in the gate for the Ken­tucky Derby on May 6.

Casse won the Plate with Lexie Lou in 2014.

And there’s young up­starts like Santino Di Paola, 23-year-old art school grad, who hopes to sad­dle his first horse, D’s Bene­fac­tion, as a fullfledged trainer on Sun­day at Wood­bine.

Di Paola’s fam­ily has been in­volved in rac­ing for close to 50 years, and even though the fi­nan­cial is­sues fac­ing the sport and all the in­sta­bil­ity in the in­dus­try should be telling him no, he is de­ter­mined to give it a go. He cur­rently has nine of his fam­ily’s horses in his care at Wood­bine, with more on their way — in­clud­ing Lyla D, a filly who shares the same blood­lines as the most re­cent Triple Crown win­ner, Amer­i­can Pharoah.

Horse rac­ing in On­tario is not the same sport it was when Di Paola’s fa­ther, Car­men, be­gan breed­ing horses in the 1970s.

In­ter­est in rac­ing start­ing de­clin­ing in the ’90s, and for years the in­dus­try was buoyed by money from slot ma­chines, but they are gone now, too.

Sub­se­quently, race days have been cut, foal crops have dwin­dled and the num­ber and qual­ity of race horses in the prov­ince has plum­meted. Di Paola says his fam­ily used to breed 10 mares a year, but this year they will breed just two, and in­stead of pa­tron­iz­ing On­tario-based stal­lions, their mares are matched with stal­lions in Ken­tucky be­cause the off­spring will have more op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­pete — and be ul­ti­mately worth more.

This year, Wood­bine has cut $2 mil­lion from their stakes race purses, most no­tably from two of the track’s most pres­ti­gious races, the Wood­bine Mile and the Cana­dian In­ter­na­tional have had their purses cut from $1 mil­lion to $800,000, and four stakes were elim­i­nated from the sched­ule.

Half the money is be­ing re­dis­tributed to purses for the day-to-day races to help the lo­cal in­dus­try, the other half go­ing into Wood­bine’s cof­fers.

Signs are point­ing to­ward the pos­i­tive for the in­dus­try.

Wa­ger­ing on Wood­bine’s thor­ough­breds in 2016 rose steeply over 2015, and the On­tario Lib­er­als have pledged $700 mil­lion to the be­lea­guered in­dus­try un­til 2021, and last Oc­to­ber it was an­nounced they are con­sid­er­ing ex­tend­ing those pay­ments of $93.4 mil­lion each year to 2038.

In an at­tempt to at­tract the cov­eted mil­len­nial de­mo­graphic to the race­track, Wood­bine is host­ing a two-day mu­sic fes­ti­val around the Queen’s Plate on Canada Day week­end.

As a fledg­ling horse­man, though, the state of flux is a con­cern for Di Paola, but not enough to sway his de­ci­sion to try and make a ca­reer in rac­ing.

“I’m ex­cited for it and I think we’re on track for a de­cent year,” he said. His goal is to win 10 to 15 races for his fam­ily’s op­er­a­tion this year. He hopes to take on other clients soon.

“If things go the way I’m hop­ing they are go­ing to go, I’ll be in it for the long haul as a trainer.”

Post time for Satur­day’s first race of the 62nd sea­son at Wood­bine is 1 p.m. Sun­day’s first race is 1 p.m. Wed­nes­day night rac­ing be­gins May 17.

GARY JONES/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Trainer Mark Casse has a nine-horse ar­mada nom­i­nated for the Plate, in­clud­ing last year’s stand­out ju­ve­nile colts King and his Court and State of Honor.

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