Woodbine chief stepping down

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

David Willmot, who led Ontario's horse racing industry from the brink of insolvency back to profitability, announced yesterday that he will resign as chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group.

When he took over 15 years ago, Woodbine was in such dire financial shape that Willmot recalls ordering that the art be sold off the walls of the directors' room to pay for track refurbishing. Today, the racing factory has 2,200 stalls, features some of the best trainers and horses in North America and has a daily handle of $2.5 million.

"When I came in we were close to bankruptcy," Willmot said. "The bank was going to call our loans. The morale was poor. It was: 'What am I doing in this contracting business?' What I'm most proud of is the confidence in horse racing has been regained by the province's owners and breeders."

Willmot will remain as chairman of the board with current president and chief operating officer Nick Eaves taking over as CEO next June.

"I'm at the long end of an appropriate tenure for any CEO if you want to allow for promotion within the management team," he said. "Also the CEO has to come to work every day with fire in their belly. I've still got a passion for the sport but the right thing for the company and industry is for Nick who's younger to take over. Simply put, you've got to get out of the way."

Willmot oversaw the industry's tie-in with slot machines. That brought bigger purses which led to better horses, trainers and jockeys. Woodbine became one of the first tracks with a synthetic surface and Willmot got its signal into the U.S. TV market.

"I'll probably miss it but," he said, "I have a wife who's already said: 'Do not interfere.'"


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