Woodbine looks to get things back on track
New season offers some reasons for hope amid challenging time for sport
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.
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.