Ontario Racing Lobbying in Advance of Vote

The provincial government plans to end the slots-at-racetracks program.

by Alex Campbell

The future of the Ontario horse racing industry could be placed in serious peril April 24, when a vote on the 2012 Ontario provincial budget is scheduled.

As part of the proposed budget, the Ontario government plans to eliminate the province’s slots-at-racetracks program, which serves as a revenue-sharing agreement between the province and the horse racing industry. The horse racing industry receives $345 million a year through the program, which is mainly used to fund purses.

Racetracks will still operate with purse structures intact for the 2012 season, but many could close at the end of their respective racing seasons should the agreement end in March 2013 as planned.

The Ontario horse racing and breeding industry has lobbied the current government for the last two months to reverse its decision with a series of petitions and rallies. But should the budget pass it would, in all likelihood, bring serious changes to an industry that has improved significantly in Ontario over the last decade.

The industry could still be saved, however, because the Ontario government could be toppled in a vote of no-confidence by the two opposition parties, which could join forces to reject the budget. Should the budget fail to pass, Ontarians would return to the polls to elect a new government.

An election could be a good sign for the Ontario horse racing industry. A recent poll conducted by research firm Angus Reid suggests the current Liberal government would slip to the third-most popular party in the province behind the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats. The poll results, released April 12, showed that 34% of respondents said they would intend to vote for the Progressive Conservatives if an election were held now, followed by 31% for the New Democrats, and 29% for the Liberals.

The Progressive Conservatives have already indicated they will reject the budget at the vote, leaving the health of the racing industry in the hands of New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath.

“The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have definitely shown considerable concern with respect to what’s happening to the Ontario horse racing and breeding industry,” said Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association president Sue Leslie. “It is our intention to continue to try to work with the Liberal Government should they remain in power, but the PCs and NDP seem a little more willing to do something to help and help quickly.”

The Ontario horse racing industry also has support from current government representatives, including Liberal member Kim Craitor, who serves a portion of the Niagara Falls region, home of Fort Erie Racetrack & Slots. On April 18 Craitor presented the legislature with a petition in support of the Ontario horse racing industry that contained roughly 3,200 signatures.

The government plans to close the slots parlor at Fort Erie April 30.

“I’m doing what I can,” Craitor was quoted as saying April 18. “I’m not giving up hope.”

Leslie believes that the industry shouldn’t give up hope, either, and urges racing's stakeholders to make a last push with their local government representatives.

“The most important thing right now is to contact their local government representatives because if you convince one representative that what’s happening isn’t right, they will then take that voice to their leadership,” she said. “Everyone needs to meet with, e-mail, phone their government representatives and keep hammering the point home to them about the importance of the racing and breeding industry.”