by Alex Campbell
In a move that will greatly affect the future of the horse racing industry in the province, the Ontario government April 24 passed a 2012 provincial budget that ends the slots-at-racetracks program operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp in March 2013.
The end of the program, which has been in place since 1996, will mean the Ontario horse racing industry will lose its share from the revenue-sharing agreement—about $345 million a year—that is mainly used to fund purses at almost 20 racetracks.
Despite having the opportunity to defeat the government and send Ontarians back to the polls, New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath said her party wanted to avoid the election and instead work through the issues in Parliament. The budget passed when all 52 Liberal members voted yes, and all 37 Progressive Conservative members voted no.
The NDP abstained from casting any of its 17 votes, assuring the budget would be passed.
“I feel that we serve the public better by getting to work here in this legislature than chasing votes in an election,” Horwath said April 23. “That’s why I can say that our caucus does not intend to defeat the government over the budget motion in the house.”
Horwath’s decision to assist in passing the budget came with her own demands that she presented to Premier Dalton McGuinty in a series of meetings. As part of her budget demands, Horwath asked McGuinty to assist the Ontario horse racing industry’s transition away from the slots program.
McGuinty has agreed to the demand, saying the government will provide “transitional aid” to the industry, but the extent to which the government will help the industry is not known at this time.
According to Bullet News Niagara, Cindy Forster, a member of the NDP party representing Welland, has said the transitional aid for the industry would be a one-time payment, but further details won’t be known for a few weeks.
The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association has been in discussions with the Liberal Party and the NDP to try to sustain the jobs in the industry. OHRIA president Sue Leslie said that while the organization appreciates the fact something emerged from the discussions, transitional aid is not sufficient enough to sustain the industry.
“We are still focused on sustainability, not transition,” she said. “Until we can have meaningful dialogue about how this industry is going to be sustained rather than how this industry is going to be transitioned, it certainly cracks the door open, but the door needs to be opened a lot more yet.”
Depending on the outcome of the discussions, the conclusion of the slots-at-racetracks program could put many of the 60,000 people directly or indirectly involved in the horse racing industry out of work at the end of the 2012 racing season. Leslie is hopeful the OHRIA can partner with the government on a new enterprise that the two parties might be able to share in going forward.
While the loss of funding won’t hit the racing side of the industry until the end of the year, Ontario breeders have already been affected as a result of the timing of the original announcement in February, right in the middle of breeding season. Stallion farms have seen a drop in bookings, and some breeders have even shipped mares they normally breed in Ontario out of the province.
But despite the grim current outlook, Leslie said the OHRIA will keep fighting for the industry.
“There will be an ongoing public relations campaign and ongoing efforts to try and save the jobs for the horse racing industry,” she said. “That’s our focus, and that’s how we’re going to continue to be focused.”