Woodbine Racetrack is trying to attract new spectators by doing something unheard of at North American tracks: It's running clockwise races.
On Friday, the Toronto racetrack kicked off the Euro Turf Series with the first of up to 40 clockwise races this year, making Woodbine the only North American racetrack to hold them regularly.
The novelty events mean Woodbine can more easily attract competitors from Europe, which has traditionally held clockwise races, and bring the action closer to the audience on the outer course.
Jim Lawson, chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, hatched the idea as a way to ignite interest in a sport that has stagnated in recent years.
It's especially pressing for an industry that took a blow in 2013 after the provincial government scrapped the lucrative slots-at-racetracks program, which gave 10 per cent of gross slot revenue to racetracks and 10 per cent to the horse-racing industry. The program had delivered more than $3.4-billion to the industry since 1998.
"There were crowds here on a Saturday in the 1960s and '70s, but we're in a very different world today," Mr. Lawson said. "It's been a tough time for the industry and we need to find ways to regenerate excitement about it."
Horse racing fan Julie Wright set aside her afternoon to attend Friday's inaugural event.
A camera in hand, Ms. Wright, 50, stood against the rail of the grassy turf course and awaited the eight riders as they rounded the corner. Within seconds, the jockeys and their horses blasted past her, right to left.
Ms. Wright said she hopes that maintaining the directional switch will draw thoroughbreds from Europe and Asia.
"As a fan, we love it when we see jockeys come from England or horses that we only see on TV," she said.
The initiative also makes financial sense for Woodbine, which is the only North American racetrack to feature a grassy turf course around its one-mile synthetic course. Despite its lush appearance, portions of the 1 1/2-mile E.P. Taylor turf track are underused, Mr. Lawson said. The course's turns make it unfeasible to run 5- and 5 1/2-furlong sprint races counterclockwise. The clockwise races will provide a greater variety of offerings.
"The more horses and the more turf racing we can get, the better it is for our revenue stream. That's how we sustain ourselves as a business," Mr. Lawson said.
Fans especially appreciate the intimacy of turf racing, Mr. Lawson said.
Hayley Morrison, a regular attendee of Woodbine, grew up in Barbados where the jockeys ride clockwise.
"It's captivating to see them come around the turn. You're close to the rail and you just feel like you're in the moment with them," Ms. Morrison said after the race. "It feels more like home when I see them run that way."
Jockey Luis Contreras won the inaugural event with his five-year-old Curlin gelding Fireball Merlin, after recently winning another clockwise race in Japan. Woodbine officials hosted a trial race in mid-May to ensure that riders could handle the change.
"While they're professional, elite-level riders, it will take some getting used to," said John Siscos, Woodbine's director of communications. "It's like running a motorcycle. You go into a turn, you're leaning and your feet are at a certain angle."
It remains unclear why North America has historically adopted counterclockwise racing. Some of the earliest reports point to William Whitley, who built the first American circular racetrack in Kentucky in 1788. Mr. Whitley was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and was believed to have swapped the direction of his racetrack in opposition of British customs.
Woodbine's next clockwise race is slated for Sunday.