This week former Woodbine Entertainment CEO and current Chairman David Willmot called it quits. A man who dearly loved the "OJC", Ontario racing and racing in general certainly deserves to enjoy his retirement, and everyone involved in Canadian racing wishes him good health.
When we look at what Mr. Willmot did for Canadian racing, the list is very long.
Along with offering and promoting our big races with verve, Woodbine has heavily invested in racing, totalling over $385 since slots were introduced. Compare this to some slots tracks who are purely balance sheet driven. There is no comparison.
When you sit in the finish line bar, head upstairs to Champions, or visit the paddock, or turn on your television to watch racing, you see what Woodbine has invested.
Harness racing participants are some of the most conspiracy minded folks you'll ever see, and with David Willmot running the show (and being a thoroughbred guy), this was shown again and again. But when you looked at the facts there was no evidence for them to feel that way. Million dollar stakes races, big purses, a huge upgrade at Mohawk, a new paddock, a weekly show on the Score network for both breeds that they pay for. He even invested his own money buying harness horses.
I don't think you'll find anyone in racing who does not respect his love of the game, and the willingness to want to grow it.
However, on the flip side, the betting side of the game is a different story.
When the parimutuel tax was taken off pools in the late 1990's (close to a 7% reduction on takeout), where Canada could've had either the highest rebates or lowest takeout in North America with a vision towards the future, Woodbine and the horse racing industry took it for themselves.
With hundreds of millions in slot money funding the game, Woodbine could've been a betting leader all on its own, cultivating their customers, but instead we saw 28.3% takeouts for trifectas, one of the worst takeout rates in North America.
With betfair making noise early in the 2000's, a partnership, or a Canadian betting exchange could've been on the radar. It wasn't even a thought.
When offshores were taking betting handle in the early 2000's, it wasn't a wakeup call that your customers were telling you something, instead we saw a PR offensive, trying to crush them.
I don't type the above to hammer Mr. Willmot. Each of his decisions and his teams decisions regarding betting are not malicious. They didn't want to hurt racing handles by not helping the bettor more. It wasn't a conscious decision. It just lacked the vision that was seen on the racing end, from this fine organization.
This was done like it always is in racing: Because time and time again, the person running the organization that loves the sporting end, has his or her expertise in that part of the business.
This is not a David Willmot only phenomenon. Think Mr. Stronach for a corollary:
It's who they hang around with in the Woodbine Club - breeders and owners. It's who they deal with on a daily basis - horsemen groups, government agencies, breeders and owners. It's their world view.
Conversely, few executives - David Willmot or otherwise - are overly at home sitting upstairs with a bunch of guys betting $40 across each night. It's not who they are.
I give Mr. Willmot high marks for his work for Canadian Racing - it would be silly not to, and the proof is in the pudding. However, one area he failed, in my opinion, was trying to handle betting issues himself, or with a hand-picked team which fit his wordview.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club has Presidents and some VP's that handle the racing side. Conversely, they have a VP who is a head of wagering that receives little interference from those racing VP's. North American structure does not do this, nor do they have it. That's why excellent executives like Mr. Willmot will get, and will deserve praise, but in my opinion it will always come with an asterisk.