Woodbine bets on Dark Horse as live racing returns in Ontario

It is a never-ending search to expand the fan base for horse racing, and an age-old battle to attract younger spectators and bettors who might come to appreciate a sport that’s fallen on difficult times.

To try and solve that dilemma — with harness racing returning to Mohawk on Friday, and thoroughbreds thundering around Woodbine starting Saturday — Woodbine Entertainment is taking a bold step into remote betting.

The Dark Horse app lets fans bet real money or play for free, and “entertain and engage” on a different level. It is the first legal single-sport betting app to be approved in Canada.

“The most innovative thing that happened to the industry since the start of simulcasting,” Woodbine Entertainment’s Chris Lush said in an interview on Tuesday.

The group’s senior vice-president of information technology, wagering and broadcasting said Dark Horse has been in development for years and the chance to fully launch it with a return of live racing, under strict social distancing regulations during the pandemic, is perfect timing.

Spectators are not allowed at either track — only essential personnel will be on site, with tight health restrictions — but being able to stream races live with the app could help attract new fans and satisfy regular track-goers still not allowed on the premises.

There is an undeniable need for horse racing to attract a younger audience for its long-term survival. The median age of fans is somewhere in the 60s, Lush said, and “we need ways to find and engage a younger demographic.”

The Dark Horse app may do that. It’s designed for both experienced bettors and newcomers, using artificial intelligence to help navigate the sometimes complex world of parimutuel wagering while also providing veteran punters with a way to stay engaged with the sport while tracks remain virtually dark.

Users can stream races in high definition in the app, and the option of wagering real money or playing for free using virtual coins could attract a varied audience. Woodbine Entertainment had hoped for 50,000 downloads in the first year. While that target might be optimistic given the impact of the pandemic, officials are buoyed by its acceptance so far.

“The app was created with the sports bettor in mind, and uses a simplified user experience and artificial intelligence to make it easy for new players to engage with the sport of horse racing,” Lush said.

Real-time testing was done last fall, with modifications made right up until March — before Mohawk’s operations were suspended and Woodbine postponed its April 18 thoroughbred opener.

“We thought it was the right approach to launch it with the resumption of live racing,” Lush said.

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That time has arrived in Ontario — Fort Erie was first out of the gate on Tuesday.

“While we take great pride in being the first pro sport back competing in Canada, we also recognize that comes with a big responsibility,” Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson said in a release. “We are absolutely committed to operating our live racing with safety as the highest priority.”

Doug Smith