Written by: Dave Briggs

After 20 years at the Woodbine Entertainment Group, including nearly 10 years as its president, Nick Eaves has announced he is leaving the Toronto company on March 31, 2015.

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Nick Eaves’ decision to step down as the president and CEO of Canada’s largest racetrack operator did not come as a surprise to Sue Leslie. On Jan. 15, Eaves announced he was leaving Toronto’s Woodbine Entertainment Group, effective March 31, 2015, after 20 years with the company that operates Mohawk Racetrack in Campbellville and Woodbine Racetrack near Pearson Airport.

“I have an appreciation for the stress and toll the last three years has taken on him and his family. I think Nick would believe this is in the best interest of the industry or he wouldn’t do it, but I’m not so sure he’s right,” said Leslie, the president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association of which Eaves is a board member.

Leslie said Eaves showed “tremendous leadership,” especially through the turmoil caused by the province’s decision to end the Slots at Racetracks Program.

“(Eaves) has had to make very difficult decisions and has had to carry out very difficult and emotional changes in the industry, particularly around Woodbine,” Leslie said.

That included making deep and difficult cuts to Woodbine staff and reducing purses, particularly to its stakes programs on both the standardbred and thoroughbred side.

Leslie said she hopes Eaves’ successor, “has a true understanding of horse racing and an understanding of horsepeople, right from the ownership — which, obviously, is so important — right down to the people that are working with the horses… As much as we have to be highly motivated on the gaming front, we have to be more motivated about our base, which is horse racing and breeding.”

Eaves said his decision to depart Woodbine was a mutual one made both by him and Woodbine’s board of directors and solidified by the fact the company is now showing signs of stability in a post-slots reality.

“To take full advantage of the opportunities that are before us, you need to be able to commit to leading for the long term,” Eaves said. “Just where I am in my stage of life… I didn’t know if I really am the long-term driver of this business.”

Eaves has been the president of WEG since 2006 and also its CEO since 2010. Following his departure, Woodbine chair Jim Lawson will become the company’s interim leader. Lawson is also the interim commissioner of the Canadian Football League.

Eaves said he doesn’t have a new job lined up, yet, but he hopes people view his impending departure from Woodbine as a positive sign of the health of the industry in Ontario.

“People have every reason to be very confident about where our industry and where the Woodbine Entertainment Group — both breeds — is going,” Eaves said. “I do worry that some might read into this change a signal that things have stepped backwards or that I’ve lost confidence in where our industry is going and where our company’s going. It’s actually the opposite of that. I’ve only recently been comfortable that we’ve found a platform and re-established that stability in order to take it forward. I didn’t create that and it doesn’t depend on me to move it forward, but I couldn’t have looked at making this decision without knowing that stability had been re-established.”

He said leaving WEG prior to that would not have been the right thing to do.

“I don’t want to sound magnanimous, but how could any of us have left when everything was so uncertain? I certainly wasn’t going to do that and most people didn’t. That’s one of the beautiful things about this industry — the resolve people have, the passion that people share for it. That wasn’t even a consideration a year and two and three years ago,” he said. “It becomes a consideration once you’ve been able to come through something, look at what that means and need to make decisions for the long term. That’s really where I came to. The footing is stable, the opportunities are real and we’re beginning to move forward. I think somebody who’s definitely going to be leading for the long term needs to be charged with that. I determined that it just wasn’t me.”