TORONTO — Jim Lawson is using a very familiar model as he builds the $1-million Queen's Plate.
Woodbine Entertainment Group's chief executive officer also serves as chairman of the CFL's board of governors and twice has been the league's interim commissioner. Lawson's goal is to transform the Plate, North America's longest continuously run stakes race, into a national event like the Grey Cup.
The Grey Cup is awarded annually to the CFL champion and traditionally is the highest-rated television sports event, but it's much more than just a game. It's the country's biggest football celebration with fans travelling from across Canada to don their team colours, talk shop with other gridiron enthusiasts and participate in week-long festivities and parties.
"Yes, the idea is we need to turn this into a festival, must-go-to event," Lawson said of the Plate. "I think in the last three years we've started to see this event being on everyone's sports and social calendar.
"The Grey Cup is a ton of fun for people to get together and party and share Grey Cup war stories and football stories and I think we're turning the Queen's Plate into a place to be. I can see the day where we're getting 75,000 to 100,000 people to Woodbine over the course of a weekend."
The opening jewel of Canada's Triple Crown, scheduled for Saturday evening at Woodbine, is the weekend's marquee event. But the Plate festival also includes performances by country star Brad Paisley (Friday night) and Canadian rockers Sam Roberts Band (Saturday night) plus the Hats and Horseshoes party in addition to plenty of racing from Friday through Sunday.
Lawson comes by his sports acumen honestly. His father, Mel, played quarterback for the 1943 Grey Cup-winning Hamilton Flying Wildcats and his grandfather, Charles, owned the Hamilton Wildcats in the 1940s and was a key figure in the merging of the Wildcats and Hamilton Tigers to become the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1950.
Lawson was also drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1978. He played two seasons with the AHL's Nova Scotia Voyageurs before retiring to pursue a law career.
Lawson said there are many Grey Cup events that could translate to the Plate festival and expose the sport to non-racing fans. Another key selling point could be the horses themselves.
"I think everyone loves horses," Lawson said. "They're beautiful animals, they're cared for, trained and are great performers.
"I think the beauty of the horse is something right off that people miss (by not attending). But it's everything around that and in our case just giving people a fun time with the music, food and beverages we're delivering. I think we can learn a lot from how the CFL staff organizes the CFL festival as they do a great job and people flock to it and love it and I think that's where we're headed here."
A big challenge horse-racing faces is battling other mainstream sports for a younger demographic.
"The Toronto Raptors are maybe the poster child in North America for how to do that," Lawson said. "What the NBA has accomplished over the last 10 years is spectacular.
"It's a different type of consumption today for the young fan . . . you've got to find ways to get them out, have that experience and have fun. Our ultimate goal is to expose people to racing and bring them back and have them realize what a fun time they can have here."
Of course, nothing generates more horse-racing interest than a Triple Crown champion. That certainly was the case south of the border earlier this year when Justify, a horse bred by B.C.'s John Gunther, swept the American Triple Crown.
Canada has been without a Triple Crown winner since Wando in 2003. Lawson said while building the Plate is Woodbine's priority, so to is giving the Triple Crown more prominence. This year, it added the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., as the title sponsor.
But winning Canada's Triple Crown is no easy feat. Not only do the three races — the Plate, $400,000 Prince of Wales Stakes and $400,000 Breeders' Stakes — cover various distances, they're run on different surfaces. The 1 1/4-mile Plate goes on Woodbine's Tapeta course while the 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales is run on dirt and the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' is contested on Woodbine's E.P. Taylor turf course.
The three U.S. Triple Crown races cover various distances but all are on dirt.
"We've talked about a substantial bonus for any horse winning the (Canadian) Triple Crown so we're starting to think about that angle," Lawson said. "We'd like to build momentum around the Triple Crown but I think the starting point is getting people here and exposing them to what a great event the Queen's Plate is.
"Hopefully after that, the Triple Crown will take on prominence with people."
That could happen this year if a horse wins both the Plate and Prince of Wales. Plate Trial winner Telekinesis is the early 5/2 Plate favourite with fillies Dixie Moon and Wonder Gadot _ who were 1-2 in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks_ next at 4/1 and 3/1 respectively.
"I think any superstar is good for any sport," Lawson said. "We could have a Canadian superstar in the making with those three."