Woodbine sets the pace for racetrack casinos

Oct 15, 2002 5:48 AM

   The queen of England and I were in Toronto last week.

   Not together. Her Majesty had Prince Philip tagging along with her, and I was alone, as usual, but we did have something in common.

   Horses and Woodbine Racetrack.

   I was in Toronto on horse business, and the Queen was there visiting the National Trade Center, and she stopped off and spent eight or nine minutes at a booth sponsored by Woodbine, featuring a display of the Queen’s Plate, the track’s featured race. A live horse was on hand — Regal Embrace, winner of the Queen’s Plate of 1995 — and the Queen looked at him and the exhibit with pride and interest.

   If you get to the Toronto airport, make it a point to take 10 minutes and drive to Woodbine. It is just a few furlongs from the airport, and it is the North American continent’s finest example of a racino, the much-discussed combination of a racetrack and casino.

   There are others scattered all over the U.S. and Canada — from Prairie Meadows in Iowa to Mountaineer Park in West Virginia to Delaware Park and Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway in Delaware to 15 at tracks across Ontario, but there is none like Woodbine.

   For one thing, Woodbine has enough land to build its own small city, and as you enter the approaches to the track and casino it seems like you are coming upon a mystic castle on a plain. There are boulevard-wide avenues with flags and banners, and of course the towering track itself.

   When you get to the entrance, it becomes immediately apparent that this is something truly special and exciting. And when you get inside, on ground level, you find out how a racino should be designed.

   The Ontario Lottery Commission, run by a major executive named Ron Barbaro who once ran Prudential of America’s operations, controls casinos in the province of Ontario. All but two of Ontario’s 17 tracks now have casinos, and they have transformed the tracks into highly profitable operations with purses that are making the horsemen of Ontario fat and rich. Most of the racinos are tastefully done, well designed and highly attractive, but Woodbine’s is spectacular. There are few in Las Vegas that match it, and none that exceed it in décor, ambiance and attractiveness.

   David Willmot, the supreme racing executive who runs Woodbine Entertainment, was determined to make sure that patrons knew from the moment they stepped into the place that Woodbine was both a racetrack and casino. So part of the millions spent in building the casino went into a huge art project, in which the creative talent of a Toronto art studio was sent to Italy to study and then recreate artistically the famed annual Il Palio, the wild horse race around the Piazza del Campo in the center of the city of Siena that has been part of a religious celebration since the eleventh century.

   The Canadian artists did a magnificent job. The soft colors and tones and hues of the huge wall murals make you aware that racing is part of the enterprise. The scenes surround you, and were painted on wallpaper to turn the entire casino into one giant Piazza del Campo, with all the color and pageantry of the real thing in Siena.

   Unlike the hotel casinos of Vegas, you do not have to walk thru the casino to get to the track. When you enter, you head either left to the casino or right to the racetrack, one of the most modern in the world.

   Some racing people worry that the greater appeal of casinos not only will fail to turn those customers into racing fans, but that sooner or later track management will abandon horses for slots.

   It has not happened at Woodbine, or anywhere else where the two are combined, partly because of the dedication of management and partly because the enabling legislation has built in mandated purse benefits that bring better horses and thus more exciting and formful racing.

   The result is that Woodbine is a place fit for a queen. Or for a working stiff who appreciates great racing in a palace.