Long-Term Plan for Ontario Horse Racing Looms

The provincial government said it's ready to consider recommendations.

by Alex Campbell

After reaching short-term agreements with 11 of the province's 17 racetracks to continue live racing for 2013, the Ontario government is ready to map out a long-term plan for the industry.

The government announced May 13 it has asked the province's Horse Racing Transition Panel to put together a long-term plan to implement a number of recommendations from a report the panel released last October.

"I know how important this industry is to communities across Ontario, and I am confident that the expertise and guidance of this panel will help the horse racing industry move toward a bright, sustainable future," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in a prepared statement.

The province has given the panel a June deadline for a draft plan that modernizes the governance and regulation of the horse racing industry, grows the fan base, provides more wagering options and ongoing government support, and ensures animal welfare. The government expects the final plan will be complete by October 2013.

The panel will also be responsible for working with industry partners, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. on integrating horse racing with the province's gaming strategy to offer new gaming products and generate additional revenue.

"Significant strides have been made over the past months to ensure there is horse racing in Ontario for this year and beyond," said John Snobelen, one of three members on the Horse Racing Transition Panel. "The panel looks forward to continuing our work with the government and the horse racing industry to ensure a sustainable future for the industry."

The past 15 months were tumultuous for the province's horse racing industry after the Ontario government announced in February 2012 its decision to cancel the slots-at-racetracks program. The lucrative revenue-sharing agreement, which provided the horse racing industry with about $345 million per year, expired March 31, 2013.

Woodbine was the first track to secure transitional funding to operate live racing for 2013 in January, but the uncertainty surrounding the industry hit the province's breeders immediately. A number of stallions and mares have left the province to be bred elsewhere, while the annual September yearling sale saw both the average and median decline when compared with 2011.

Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, said the government's announcement is a positive step for the industry, and recent meetings with the premier have shown commitment on the government's end to see horse racing gain sustainability.

"I certainly expressed urgency to her that we didn't have months to wait or a year or two because we won't have an industry left," she said. "I would say while there's an awful lot of work to do, we're getting some indication she's keenly aware of the situation we're in and she's trying to put some pressure on to move it along."

The current liberal minority government is trying to gain support of opposition parties to pass the 2013 provincial budget, which was presented in Parliament May 2. If the opposition parties do not support the budget at the vote, however, an election would be called.

Leslie believes an election would impact the panel's timeline for completing the long-term plan.

"I think it will cause some delay," she said. "The (New Democrats) have different thoughts on the future of horse racing than the (Progressive Conservatives) do, than the Liberals do, so I think an election would delay the panel's work."

Leslie is optimistic horse racing would continue in Ontario beyond 2014 when most of the short-term agreements between the province and the racetracks expire, but stressed it is critical for the future of the industry to find a long-term solution as quickly as possible.

"I would really hope the people in our industry will stay as committed as they can," she said. "We need people to stay, we need people to show a little more patience if they possibly can, and I know they're hurting so badly in so many different ways.

"I do believe there will be horse racing in Ontario and there will be new revenue streams; the question is can we get it done quickly enough. I assure you we're pushing as hard as we can."