Almost as rare as a woman in racing with such authority is someone ascending to that role via a wagering background. Buckley began her career in racing in 1996 as manager of Woodbine’s advance deposit wagering service HorsePlayer Interactive (HPIbet) and left in 2001 to help launch another account wagering provider and its complementary network HRTV.
She returned to her native Canada in September 2015 as Woodbine Entertainment’s vice president of community relations and corporate affairs before becoming the racetracks’ president in August 2017.
The homecoming and leadership role allow Buckley to draw on all her life experiences. Before helping launch the aforementioned account wagering sites, Buckley grew up on a breeding farm in St. Thomas, Ontario, about 2 hours southwest of Woodbine.
“Once I started at Woodbine and began learning all facets of the industry, I loved it,” Buckley said, recalling her first job with HPIbet in 1996. “There are so many different perspectives between the core customer, the casual fan, and stakeholders. Understanding how we all get to the same place of prosperity is so important.”
One life experience Buckley has not had is as a mentee of other women (i.e. all her mentors have been men). She wants women to not only look up to her but also her position as an attainable one. Other women in similar positions in American horse racing are Churchill Downs Inc. Chief Financial Officer Marcia Dall, Tampa Bay Downs and National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame President Stella Thayer, and New York Racing Association Chief Experience Officer Lynn LaRocca.
“Many women have commented to me that they’re excited to see a woman in this role,” Buckley said. “There are many great success stories of women in racing, but promotions to this level are not as common as they should be.”
Woodbine Entertainment currently offers a formal mentoring program for its employees, including coaching for associates with leadership potential.
“I’ve been so fortunate to benefit from positive mentoring, so it’s good to give back,” Buckley said. “I’ve worked for great people, and each one has been an important mentor for me. None were women, though, and that’s unfortunate. I’m glad that part of my role on this team can be in that capacity.”
Buckley is shaping not only future leaders but also the future of both breeds in Ontario. She’s currently overseeing the final Standardbred meeting at Woodbine before harness shifts exclusively to Mohawk with Woodbine installing an inner turf course where the Standardbred surface used to be.
“Woodbine [Entertainment] is unique because there’s a board of directors but no shareholders—profits all go back into the industry through upgrades, marketing, and financial support,” Buckley said. “I see myself as a liaison between racetracks and government and between breeds.”
As at other tracks, Woodbine Entertainment has used big events to help raise its profile. On the Thoroughbred side, Woodbine has accomplished this both in the North American simulcast marketplace and international racing scene. Its Woodbine Mile and Canadian International days have become two prominent fall turf festivals.
Woodbine has also expanded its on-track entertainment options with a music and food truck festival at this year’s Queen’s Plate that it plans to expand for 2018.
“We’re really focused on the on-track experience,” Buckley said. “Whether it’s the customers there for racing or horsemen there to race, we want coming to Woodbine to be a special experience.”
“That includes bettors, too,” Buckley continued. “Since helping to launch HPIbet and then XpressBet/HRTV, I’ve been getting to know players and trying to understand their mindset and getting to know their needs. It’s a diverse group of people, but the bottom line is bigger wagering pools is better for everybody.”
Buckley comes into the business on a positive trajectory in that regard, as wagering increased 7.1% in 2016 versus 2015 and the 2017 Queen’s Plate card was an increase over 2016.