Woodbine's 2010 thoroughbred handle was up, which is of course a good thing. However, reading some of the press, I wonder if the story is being told correctly. Most of the press is focusing on US exposure and big event marketing and it as a driver of new handle, but I believe they are missing (or not telling, and I am sure you can figure out why) what is really happening.
US players are playing Woodbine and certainly the bigger events are being marketed - so that part is not at all untrue, however there is much more to this story. It appears Woodbine has been doing what we as players have wanted them to do for several years now - reverse the policy of demanding a huge price for the product (and protecting its signal), and their elimination of the ban on lower takeout ADW's.
About 2004 the handle was falling, take was high, rebate shop money was being shut off and watching a Woodbine race via a video feed was like asking for the keys to Fort Knox. The bogeyman at that time was those offshores stealing the money (there should be a picture of this argument under a Wikipedia entry for "Red Herring"), so contracting and being insular ruled the roost.
When I asked why this policy was in force during some of my phone calls at that time (I really wanted to bet the product because I liked it, but I was not going to play into the new 25% pick 4 take, which was raised from about 15%) there was no real answer. As with most huge organizations, the lower troops have orders.
However, since about late 2008, it seems the philosophy changed. No longer would the signal be treated like a protected child. We heard less and less about the offshores and wild numbers of lost handle. Rebates were treated more and more like a handle driver and less and less like the devil.
In 2009, enter TVG. No doubt Woodbine is either i) taking less for the signal fee or ii) paying TVG something to show the races as a feature track. Having a major network cover your races will always drive handle. In addition they did another thing that they have rarely embraced: Guaranteeing pools. They tried the seeded pool in '08 I believe, and in '09 and beyond they have guaranteed pools. For Canadian fans, no longer do you have to give a pint of blood or un-encrypt a website to watch a Woodbine race - they now stream live on their website for free.
Last, and certainly not least, larger players are welcome again - no longer are you treated like a nuisance, you are treated like a customer. As long time player "Rook" said recently (after not playing a dime into Woodbine for years):
"For over two years, I was in favor of boycotting Woodbine due to their extreme anti-rebate stance but things have gotten a lot better this year now that their former CEO David Willmot has retired." he typed.
"The effective takeout on Woodbine races has been slashed this year, [and they have] changed from being the most hostile to rebates track to being one of the most generous."
In August he wrote: "I've gone from betting $0 on WO to $206,377 thus far in 2010"
He ain't the only one folks. Price and signal availability matters.
WEG's CEO Nick Eaves has said his goal for 2011 is to lower takeout on punishing high take exotics, so more people can get some lower pricing. I imagine they will be working more on their events, looking to expand some of their signals (like they have done with Vegas), and doing some marketing to new players via the Score show, in addition to that.
It did not happen in 2002, or 2003 or 2004. But it has happened, and is happening in 2010 and 2011. Better late than never. The tradition of Woodbine (and the old Ontario Jockey Club) as a racing entity has deserved better. And so have their customers. When WEG grows it is a win-win for Canadian racing.
Now, go get that takeout down in 2011 and we'll be back a year from now talking about more handle growth. When more tracks focus on growing handle, and less on bean counting or infighting, racing wins.