TORONTO — The $1-million Queen’s Plate is North America’s oldest continuously run horse race and Jim Lawson is intent on keeping it that way.
The Woodbine Entertainment CEO announced Wednesday the 2020 Queen’s Plate has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawson wouldn’t guess when the race will be run but said if there’s a card this season at Woodbine Racetrack, it will include Canada’s most popular and prestigious event.
"Provided there is live racing at Woodbine this year, the Queen’s Plate will 100 per cent be run," Lawson said. "Even if it’s without spectators, we will run the race.
"We’re an entertainment property that can proceed — subject to health and welfare and safety guidelines — if this province gets ahead of the curve substantially and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, without spectators in order to help horse people. I understand better than anyone that health, safety and welfare are very important but at the appropriate time we’d be prepared to run without spectators to help (horse) people as long as everyone is safe. I hope everyone would understand that and the reasons why we’d do it."
The NBA, NHL, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball are among the sports in North America to have either halted or postponed the their seasons due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. And last month, Woodbine Entertainment indefinitely postponed the scheduled April 18 start to the 2020 thoroughbred season.
As a result, organizations stopped taking financial commitments for the Plate due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
"This is a three-year-old race for Canadian-breds and so that separates it from other potential races and timing," Lawson said. "That’s because three-year-old Canadian-breds, many of them, are dependant upon prep races at Woodbine.
"Many are more local horses who haven’t necessarily been training in Florida or Louisiana and we have to give everyone ample opportunity to train and run the appropriate number of prep races for the Queen’s Plate. I don’t want to be presumptuous and try to peg a date. What we will say is (the Plate) will be delayed, first and foremost in accordance to government and health guidelines, but thereafter once we can start to plan we’ll make sure we put in the appropriate level of prep races for horses to get prepared."
It’s been a difficult go this year for horse racing. On March 19, Woodbine Entertainment also suspended harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park indefinitely.
Racing had continued there during the COVID-19 outbreak before being called off.
"The economic impact from this industry is huge," Lawson said. "I’m very comfortable in saying we, Woodbine Entertainment, directly or indirectly impact 10,000 to 15,000 jobs.
"This has been terribly impactful upon me personally, I now exactly how difficult this is for horse people and this is both breeds. What makes this really hard is if we don’t get some economic activity going, at the end of the day there’s a real risk of harm to horses and livestock. That’s a dreadful thing to contemplate."
Woodbine Entertainment said people who bought tickets to the Plate can keep them or receive a full refund — including fees — between now and the new date for the race via Ticketmaster.ca. The organization will also provide information and updates regarding the race online (QueensPlate.com).
A later start for the Plate will likely also result in the other two Triple Crown races — the $400,000 Prince of Wales Stakes (July 21 at Fort Erie) and $400,000 Breeders Stakes’ (Aug. 15 at Woodbine) — both being pushed back. The same is expected for the Ricoh Woodbine Mile (Sept. 19) and Pattison Canadian International (Oct. 18), two $1-million turf races.
"I can say we’ll definitely run the Breeders’ Stakes much later," Lawson said.
The American Triple Crown has also pushed back its start. The Kentucky Derby, slated for May 2, will now go Sept. 5.
The postponement of the Queen’s Plate has put veteran trainer Roger Attfield’s historic chase on hold. The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer remains tied with the late Harry Giddings Jr. for most Plate wins by a conditioner at eight.
The 80-year-old Attfield, seven times Canadian racing’s top trainer, also holds the distinction of being a member of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame.
Queen Elizabeth II is patron of the Plate and last attended the race in 2010. The Queen’s Plate itself dates back to 1860.
The Queen’s Plate is also the opening jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown but is much more than just a horse race. Woodbine stages a festival around the event that includes outdoor concerts and a variety of social functions.
"It is a festival and I’m proud to say it was largely becoming an event on everyone’s social calendar in this country the way we were building it," Lawson said. "Our hope is that later in this year, and I don’t know when that will be, that we still have some sort of festival atmosphere around the Plate.
"But it’s way too early to project that."
The race is a 1 1/4-mile event run on Woodbine’s Tapeta course for three-year-olds foaled in Canada. Last year, jockey Flavien Prat rode One Bad Boy to a 3 1/2-length victory over Avie’s Flatter in 2:02.98.
Prat guided 65/1 longshot Country House to second in the ’19 Kentucky Derby behind Maximum Security. But Country House was elevated to the winner’s circle when Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, a stunning first in the race’s illustrious 145-year history.
Prat became the first jockey since Kent Desormeaux to do the Derby-Plate double in the same year. Desormeaux did it in ’98 Derby with Real Quiet and the Plate with Archers Bay.
Bill Hartack also accomplished the feat in 1964 with the legendary Northern Dancer.