By Alex Campbell
In response to the Ontario government’s cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks program, the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association has developed a plan for what it calls “a viable and sustainable horse racing and breeding industry in Ontario of the highest quality.”
The 26-page document released July 24 is entitled “The Plan For The Future of the Ontario Horse Racing and Breeding Industry,” and was developed by an OHRIA Task Force created as a result of the cancellation of the slots program.
Despite canceling the successful revenue sharing program earlier this year, the Ontario government has pledged $50 million in transitional funding to the horse racing industry over the next three years. The Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel has been created to make recommendations to the Ontario Minister of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs to decide how best to allocate the funds.
According to OHRIA, there have been in discussions with the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel and both sides have agreed that “the horse racing industry has grown and flourished in the province and it is worth preserving.”
OHRIA’s plan consists of two components: one focuses on the future of Ontario’s racetracks, while the other focuses on the future of Ontario’s horse people and breeders.
With regards to the racetracks, OHRIA proposes that each of the 16 racetracks that exist within the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.’s new “gaming zones” be given the opportunity to participate in the government’s new gambling modernization program. Should a racetrack be selected as an OLG gaming center, the plan calls for the government to pay “a premium if live racing continues to be offered” in addition to commercial rent, due to competition with the track’s pari-mutuel wagering.
With the government in a position to select its own sites for their new program, OHRIA believes that “it is reasonable to conclude that there will be fewer racetracks and therefore fewer live race dates in Ontario in the future.” OHRIA has concluded that should the plan be put in place, seven to 10 of the province’s existing 17 racetracks would continue to operate live racing, while race dates would decrease to 797 race dates across all breeds (Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse), down from the 1,540 live race dates allocated in 2012.
Should Fort Erie, the lone track not included in any of the new gaming zones, close at the end of this year, both “A” and “B” level Thoroughbred racing would take place at Woodbine over 167 days. Standardbred operations would be divided into three levels of racing─Premier, Signature and Grassroots─and would make up approximately 600 of the 797 live race dates throughout the province. A 30-day Quarter Horse meet would be run at Ajax Downs, if that track survives, with potential Standardbred dates also being run there.
To support overnight purses and live race dates at these tracks, OHRIA has proposed the creation of the “Ontario Development Fund.” The fund would be administered by OHRIA, but the size of the fund would ultimately depend on the number of racetracks still operating live racing and the number of live race dates. OHRIA anticipates that the fund would be in the range of $165 million per year.
In order to accommodate breeders, OHRIA has indicated that “a separate fund similar to the existing Horse Improvement Program will be needed to support the breeding and racing of Ontario horses.” Anticipated to be in the range of $30 million per year, the fund would act in a similar fashion to the current Ontario-sired racing program, giving “additional incentive for owners to purchase Ontario bred horses and this, in turn, will stimulate the breeding side of the industry.”
While OHRIA states that most of the funding would be required from the government, it points out that racetracks and simulcast facilities are in an ideal position to host single game sports wagering. OHRIA notes that “the Ontario racing industry has a sophisticated telephone and internet account wagering network in place that could be enlarged to include sports wagering,” which would reduce the financial contributions of the government and move the industry towards self-sustainability.
OHRIA is asking the government to act quickly by having a plan in place before the September yearling sales. They are also asking for the government to institute immediate transitional funding to assist individuals who rely on the racetracks that will be closing for employment. The Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel is expected to make their recommendations to the government sometime next month.
Should the government not accept the plan and continue on their current course of action, OHRIA warns that it “would certainly assist some of those currently employed within the industry to transition to unemployment and public assistance” but “those resulting costs to government should be factored in when deciding to eliminate the horse racing and breeding industry of Ontario.”
“The government has dealt a severe blow to the horse racing and breeding industry in Ontario and to all those who rely on it for their livelihood,” the report concludes. “The Ontario industry has become a leader in North America and potentially it stands to disappear. This would result in an economic and social tragedy.”
A full copy of the 26-page report can be found on OHRIA’s website, value4money.ca.