Upon his high school graduation, Joe Aschaiek chose a whimsical phrase to accompany his yearbook photo: “Off to the races I go.”
That quote would prove to be quite fitting years later, when Aschaiek joined the Woodbine Entertainment Group, a company with a celebrated history in the horse-racing industry and the largest operator of horse racing in the country.
“Millennials are interested in experiential offerings, and in order for us to capture the audience in terms of a horse-racing mandate, we need to offer other activities that will capture their attention.”
Not that he set out for such a career. He studied finance and became a chartered accountant, spending the first eight years of his career at midsize accounting firms. When work there started to get a little monotonous, he sought a position that was more in line with his passions—sports, entertainment, travel, leisure, and hospitality.
“An opportunity came up at Woodbine, and I was hired as manager of financial planning and reporting,” Aschaiek says. “Over the last twelve years, I have been able to grow in my career at Woodbine and have ended up leading the company’s finance function over the last two years.”
Today, Aschaiek serves as the company’s senior vice president of finance, and has been instrumental in the expansion of Woodbine’s offerings. Aschaiek says that it’s the uniqueness of Woodbine and the diversity of his role that has kept him at the organization for more than a dozen years.
Woodbine owns and operates two racetracks in Ontario—Woodbine Racetrack in northwest Toronto and Mohawk Racetrack in Campbellville. In addition to offering live races, Woodbine operates a network of off-track betting locations throughout the province that allow customers to wager on numerous races throughout the world. Woodbine also owns and operates HPIbet, an account wagering platform offered across the country that allows patrons to wager over the Internet and by phone.
Getting Off Track
In his spare time, Aschaiek volunteers for the William Osler Health System Foundation, which is a trio of hospitals in Toronto’s suburbs (Brampton Civic Hospital, Etobicoke General Hospital, and the Peel Memorial Centre for Integrated Health and Wellness), and provides care to people in need. “When I look toward the future, it’s the kind of thing I can see myself doing more of,” he says.
In addition to their wagering services, Woodbine and Mohawk lease their gaming floors—which contain in excess of four thousand slot machines and electronic table games, as well as a variety of food and beverage offerings—to the provincial government.
“Currently, we are the landlord to the provincially owned and operated Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), and OLG is in the midst of modernizing and privatizing that function,” Aschaiek says. “The RFP [request for proposal] process is underway, and the hope and intention is to have a private operator selected by fall of 2017 for the Woodbine site.”
Once the process is completed, Woodbine and the selected operator will be able to expand its current footprint and introduce live-dealer table games that will make the destination a full casino. Woodbine is able to introduce these live games after receiving conditional approvals from the City of Toronto in the summer of 2015.
Woodbine’s 680 acres of land presents a great opportunity for extensive property development beyond the racetrack and expanded casino. With undeveloped land nearly equivalent in size to the core of downtown Toronto, the organization envisions an expansion of the site to include a vast entertainment community with amenities, like upscale restaurants, nightclubs, concert facilities, and other retail venues.
“The possibilities are still being discussed and will be determined as we proceed with master planning our site,” he says. “The goal is to integrate new and exciting activities with our core horse-racing product.”
That’s important because Aschaiek notes the biggest challenge of the industry right now is getting younger generations interested in horse racing.
“From a city standpoint, it’s the possibility of creating a multiuse entertainment destination that will give residents and visitors another option to entertain themselves.”
“It’s a good time for this to happen. From a city standpoint, it’s the possibility of creating a multiuse entertainment destination that will give residents and visitors another option to entertain themselves,” he says. “Millennials are interested in experiential offerings, and in order for us to capture the audience in terms of a horse-racing mandate, we need to offer other activities that will capture their attention.”
It’s something Woodbine is already doing at the annual Queen’s Plate, the marquee horse racing event in Canada held in early July.
“The event has grown in the last few years through experiential offerings,” Aschaiek says. “Younger audiences are coming in, dressing fashionably, attending the Hats & Horseshoes Party, walking the red carpet, and enjoying a magnificent day at the races. Last year was the biggest in its more-than-150-year history, with thirty-five thousand people in attendance and the largest wagering pool ever, smashing the previous record.”
With more than eighteen hundred employees, Aschaiek notes that he is part of the team responsible for guiding the strategic vision of the company—a vision led by the property development activities it’s undertaking over the next several years.
“We signed a long-term gaming lease at Woodbine and are looking forward to similar arrangements at Mohawk, providing the pillar for casino expansion and future property development,” he says. “There is a lot of strategic planning and preparation occurring now for both properties with very exciting prospects on the horizon.”
It’s already started, too. In February, Woodbine announced that it is partnering with Trinity Development Group Inc. to develop a five-thousand-seat, 165,000-square-foot auditorium adjacent to the Woodbine Racetrack, which will be used for live music, theater, and dance events. The $50 million expansion will occupy nearly four acres.
The emphasis on property development is part of the greater focus on guest experience. “There’s a large amount of emphasis being placed on the guest experience, and I have been fortunate to work alongside our guest experience team over the last year to spearhead many new activities at the track,” Aschaiek says. “As a finance guy, it’s not necessarily my forte, but something as a customer I can appreciate and understand.”
These new activities go far beyond watching a race. For example, Woodbine Racetrack began offering a “Ride with the Horses” program in which guests can ride in a jeep alongside a live race and experience the sights, sounds, and thrills of a horse race at close range. Tours of the stables were also made available and proved to be extremely popular, as guests were able to interact with the beautiful animals.
“We have a mature clientele; that’s not a secret. The challenge is getting the younger generation involved in the sport—and the way to do that is by offering a multitude of experiences and activities,” Aschaiek says. “We offer horse racing, dining, and slots, but there are many more opportunities for entertainment we wish to create. From a business standpoint, this is the right time for us to not only survive, but to thrive.”