What's Monte up to now?

Woodbine Entertainment isn't just about horses

What's Monte up to now?
Woodbine Entertainment announcement about the hiring of Monte McNaughton

Ontarians wondering where Monte McNaughton would show up, having resigned from the Ford cabinet a few weeks ago, did not have to wait long. And his landing spot wasn’t much of a surprise.

McNaughton, most recently Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, is now an EVP of Industry Relations and People Experience at Woodbine Entertainment. McNaughton served as Minister of Infrastructure early in Ford’s first term, which no doubt helped set the stage for this new gig.

Woodbine Entertainment, known as the Ontario Jockey Club from 1881 to 2001, bills itself as a passionate steward of horse racing in Ontario. In it’s own words:

Woodbine Entertainment, which operates like a not-for-profit organization with the sole mandate of sustaining and growing horse racing in Ontario, is focused on transformative growth initiatives to generate new and sustainable revenue streams for the racing industry and the 25,000 jobs it supports across the province.

However, once you scratch the surface, it’s clear that Woodbine Entertainment is emblematic of Ontario today, as a gambling-based, government-legitimized front for money laundering, a land grab, and a gift to the “construction and development” community which, in Ontario at least, is largely the domain of mafia and organized crime.

For all its talk of horses, Woodbine is about infrastructure. It is currently in the midst of the largest property development project in Canada - a nearly 400-acre project in Rexdale, in North Etobicoke, including a privately-funded GO station and plans for 29,000 residential homes.

On the actual gambling side, Woodbine is also the largest racetrack operator in the country, operating Woodbine Racetrack in Rexdale, Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton, Canada’s only legal horse racing wagering site, HPIbet.com, and a large network of off-track-betting locations, including Greenwood Teletheatre in Toronto and WEGZ Stadium Bar in Vaughan (naturally).

While McNaughton was Minister of Infrastructure, early in 2019, Jeff Yurek, then Minister of Transportation, along with Kinga Surma (Etobicoke Centre MPP) and Phil Verster, CEO of Metrolinx, announced government’s plan to build a new GO station at Woodbine “at no cost to taxpayers.” Woodbine Entertainment was positioned as “partnering” with the government and Metrolink to build the station along Highway 27, on the Kitchener GO line.

A few weeks later Woodbine announced that it would be partnering with EllisDon to develop the GO station, noting that EllisDon would “assist in securing the financing required for this project, as well as the opportunity to participate in future development components of Woodbine Entertainment’s larger vision for the property.”

The release announcing the EllisDon partnership noted EllisDon projects such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (oof) as feathers in the company’s cap. It did not mention that EllisDon is notorious for cost-overruns on PPP (public private partnership) projects across the country, in a space it all but dominates.

The release also did not mention EllisDon’s relationships in Saudi Arabia, or its links to the Saudi royal family. The company is currently building part of a $64B development to turn the historic town of Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family, into a global tourism destination.

Buried in the same press release was an interesting note about Woodbine Districts, which is what Woodbine Entertainment is calling the massive development. Italics are mine.

Woodbine Districts, the most exciting development project in Canada, will be a major commercial and employment hub that will include mixed-use residential, commercial space, sports and recreation facilities, parks and a public space, a new casino, hotel, restaurants and live entertainment venue.

It’s open to interpretation how a casino serves the interests of “sustaining and growing horse racing in Ontario”, but it does shine light on why Ford’s favourite mayoral candidate, Mark Saunders, is on the board of Woodbine Entertainment.

As we wrote about earlier this year, Mark Saunders is also a “special advisor” on Ontario Place redevelopment. While the Ford government and its partners are desperate to convince Ontarians of their plan to build a “spa” and water theme park on the site, evidence suggests the site is much more likely to end up as a casino and sports betting venue.

As was recently reported, a Freedom of Information Act request by NDP MPP Chris Glover found no evidence of any work (recommendations, reports or advice) produced by Mark Saunders during his tenure as a special advisor. Hired to the role by then-Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, Lisa MacLeod, Saunders has no explicit experience in horse-racing, spas or water parks, but he is a very close ally to Ford and would have deep insight into money laundering and organized crime.

As Saunders would well know, organized crime in Ontario launders money through casinos, both legal and illegal. In 2021, one of Ontario’s largest police investigations into organized crime fell apart after it was alleged York Regional Police illegally intercepted phone calls. (Notably, the following year, Mario Cortellucci was appointed to the York Police Services Board by the province. Mr. Cortellucci, well-known “developer” and Ford family wedding guest, was also a candidate for the Italian Senate as part of a coalition of right wing parties led by Silvio Berlusconi, but was unsuccessful.)

The operation, called Project Sindacato, had resulted in charges against nine people who, police alleged, had ties to the mafia in Italy. The group was accused of running illegal gambling operations, fraud, and drug trafficking and laundering money through “legitimate” casinos. Due to the investigation, Italian police arrested twelve individuals who were “closely associated” with the Canadian branch of the operation.

But back to Monte. What McNaughton can offer Woodbine Entertainment right now is loyalty to Team Ford, a working knowledge of the whole grift, and close relationships with all the players. It’s a plush and lucrative landing for a good soldier, and further entrenches Team Ford, both inside and outside the government. As the main players in this operation, and others, face increasing scrutiny, loading up on party insiders may feel like an extra layer of insulation against accountability for leadership, the board and their partners.

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