By Jim Mulvihill
TORONTO (Saturday, July 2, 2016) – The Queen’s Plate has long been Canada’s most important and storied race – a Kentucky Derby of sorts restricted to sophomores bred in the True North – but it never came with the same amount of hoopla as an American Triple Crown event. In recent years, though, Woodbine Racetrack has made a point to turn their meet centerpiece into both a destination affair and a betting card with intracontinental appeal.
“The Queen’s Plate was somewhere close to an Eskimo’s igloo, way up there,” longtime Woodbine trainer Catherine Day Phillips said when describing how Americans used to perceive the race. “It just wasn’t really recognized.”
That began to change in 2012, when Woodbine executives decided to enhance the on-track Plate experience with a formula that has worked for several major races around the States. They amped up the party with music, fashion, specialty cocktails, food trucks, and even lawn games that allow young adults to wield mallets in their spring dresses like the Heathers.
“We wanted to rebuild the Queen’s Plate as a social event,” said Paul Lawson, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Woodbine Entertainment Group.
It’s not that Queen’s Plate Day had been unpopular. Five years ago, in 2011, estimated attendance (admission was free) was 28,000 and all-sources handle was a (non-Breeders’ Cup) track record $8.77 million. But relative to its American counterparts, track officials could see there was unrealized potential. In the four years since their marketing strategy honed in on the live experience – starting with the inaugural Hats & Horseshoes party in 2012 – crowds have risen steadily to the point where last year’s Plate brought out a record 35,000 fans and boasted $11.06 million in all-sources handle. That’s a 25% attendance jump and 26.1% wagering increase in a short span of time on cards that have remained fairly consistent in terms of quality and betting appeal.
Unlike some of the larger and, well, sloppier festivals that accompany major racedays in the U.S., Woodbine has made a point to build a celebration that embraces the racing product as part of the appeal. Events unfold adjacent to the track or paddock so horseflesh remains a focal point that can’t be missed. Big-name musical acts — Hedley, Matthew Good and indie darlings The Strumbellas — are new to the concept this year but will play after the last race instead of competing during the afternoon. A video board was installed today by the eighth-pole so partygoers up the stretch from the grandstand can follow more than just a flash of the race.
“Our research the last two years indicated that 40-50 percent of our Hats & Horseshoes guests were first-time Queen’s Plate attendees,” Lawson said. “Introducing people to the sport without getting them engaged with it would be a lost opportunity.”
Newbies – along with shameless regulars willing to lie – can register for the “First Bet’s On Us” program. Handicapping ambassadors provide a complimentary $2 wager and teach guests how to read past performances. They also help folks get over the uncertainty of not knowing what to say at the windows.
“There’s a learning curve from first-time visitor to regular handicapper and that one-on-one contact allows us to help them along and personally invite them back,” Lawson said.
Personal touches also work on the Internet, where Woodbine has made a statement on social media. An online ambassador program that started small a few years ago was ahead of its time, paying a select group of respected influencers to raise awareness of Ontario racing via tweets and feature stories. That concept was formalized and expanded in 2016 to include even more high-profile experts, from Matt Bernier of NBC Sports and Daily Racing Form to Joe Kristufek of Churchill Downs.
“We think we have a quality racing product and our desire is to get that into more international customers and the U.S. audience makes the most sense,” Lawson said. “We’re trying to raise our profile in the market. The handicappers in the U.S. are already experienced and skilled; we just need them to try a product that’s less familiar to them. It’s not easy but we really feel it’s important to our future.”
The buzz around the 157th Queen’s Plate is not lost on local horsemen, according to Day Phillips. An Ontario native, and daughter of Jim Day (trainer of Hall of Fame filly Dance Smartly), she’s grown up at Woodbine, and in 2004 won the last two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown — the Prince of Wales Stakes and the Breeders’ Stakes.
“A lot of us remember the Queen’s Plate as the biggest event of the year for our whole lives,” she said. “But it was a horse-oriented event and a different era. It got a little quiet around the Queen’s Plate for a while but the last few years there’s been this real extravaganza going on that gets people in and I think it’s phenomenal. We do need to remind them they’re here for horse racing, to make sure we keep the horse product in the newcomer’s minds, but they’re trying to do that.
“It’s exciting how much the Americans have picked up on the Queen’s Plate. We don’t usually see that. But all of the Twitter right now is about the Queen’s Plate and #QP16 and it’s great to see.”
Woodbine execs believe they’re only getting started. It’s already known the facility could be arranged to handle at least 10,000 more fans, as it did for the 1996 Breeders’ Cup, and a new 5,000-seat concert venue coming to the property could be utilized on a big race day in ways still untold. Growth could also be created in the lead-up to the Plate.
“One thing that we look at is the Kentucky Derby and how they’ve built that out to a week-long event,” Lawson said. “The same customer isn’t necessarily going to come three times that week, though, so you have to appeal to different customers on a different set of terms across the week.”
Toronto is home to 2.6 million unrealized racing fans. But there is so much entertainment and culture here that awakening their inner horseplayer is difficult, especially for a track well outside the city’s center and beyond the reach of subway lines. This weekend, for example, the city is host to one of the world’s largest Pride celebrations, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Digital Dreams EDM festival, a Blue Jays homestand and countless Canada Day events.
“It’s an extremely cosmopolitan city but also very, very competitive,” Lawson said. “You really need to up the experience if you’re going to get people to come out and we try to make the experience unforgettable.”
Five years of steady growth suggest they’re succeeding.
Jim Mulvihill is the NTRA’s director of media and industry relations.