Woodbine brings home the 161st running of the Queen’s Plate

The Queen’s Plate will take place at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack this weekend, but the 2020 version of Canada’s oldest thoroughbred horse race will look very different from what fans and sponsors have become accustomed to over its previous 160 iterations.

Dubbed “Queen’s Plate at Home,” this year’s race is the latest sporting event to be transformed by COVID. While up to 35,000 people usually watch Canadian thoroughbred racing’s marquee event in person, the grandstand at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack will be eerily silent for the Sept. 12 event.

Broadcast partners TSN and CTV will carry live coverage of the race as usual, but Woodbine Entertainment has spent the past several months developing a robust online program that makes extensive use of its @WoodbineTB Instagram page, while also working with brand partners including Moxies, Corby Spirit and Wine and Labatt Breweries of Canada to develop attached sponsorship properties.

“We had to think about how we were engaging with more casual horse racing fans and how to bring our sponsors and partners along,” says Christina Litz, the former CFL executive who joined Woodbine as vice-president, business development and revenue late last year. “A lot of their executions are on-premise, so what were we going to do? We had to be flexible and we had to get creative,” she says.

The result is what Litz describes as a “robust content engagement program” built around partnerships with about 20 digital content creators and influencers, and reflecting the event’s major pillars: food, fashion and entertainment. And, of course, horse racing.

The host for the online event is Melissa Grelo, one of the stars of CTV’s daily talk show The Social. She will host Woodbine’s online coverage from her family’s horse farm in Caledon, Ont., about an hour north of Toronto.

Like horses, sponsors too can be a skittish bunch when encountering the unexpected. But rather than being thrown by Woodbine’s decision to move the event online, Litz says that brand partners were more than willing to come along for the ride. “Our major partners have been really supportive of this program,” she says. “We really did not see any noticeable impact on revenue.”

Restaurant chain Moxies will host COVID-friendly events on the patio of nine locations across the country. The casual-dining chain is also running an online contest offering a chance to win the opportunity to see Canadian recording artists The Reklaws perform an intimate concert at Moxies Dixon location near Woodwine.

For those people reluctant to attend in person, Moxies has partnered with Labatt (one of its pouring partners) to create a “Queen’s Plate celebration” kit that includes menu items, Stella Artois beer and a $50 gift card for Woodbine’s new Dark Horse wagering app.

Woodbine’s partnership with Corby Spirit and Wine consists of lifestyle videos featuring brand ambassador Danielle Yoon showing how to make race-day cocktails using its Beefeater, Havana Club and Jacob’s Creek brands.

The Queen’s Plate at Home website also features a recipe card for the race’s official cocktail, the Royal Blush, which uses Corby’s Absolut vodka brand.

Woodbine has also partnered with Umusic to create a dedicated online property called the “Woodbine Sessions” that features Canadian recording artists Ryland James and Jade Eagleson, both of whom recently shot exclusive videos at Woodbine Racetrack.

“It’s all about bringing in strategic partners to get out to new fans and keep some of the major traditions of the Queen’s Plate alive, and music is certainly one of them,” says Litz.

Woodbine has seen a roughly 35% increase in followers on its social channels since the Queen’s Plate at-home messaging began about three weeks ago. “We’re looking for that online engagement and feeling pretty confident that between the great content we have we’ll have great numbers,” says Litz. “I have high hopes.”

Chris Powell