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.