by Alex Campbell
The Ontario provincial government said March 12 it will be ending payments to racetracks through the slots-at-racetracks program in March 2013. The result could mean potential closures for many of the province’s 17 racetracks that host Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse racing.
During a press conference in Toronto, the government said it will give the green light to the recommendation from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., which is looking to “modernize” gaming in the province. Other recommendations included building a casino in the Greater Toronto area and adding slot machines at locations outside of racetracks.
“We need to be where our customers are,” OLG chairman Paul Godfrey said. “On the gaming side, we need to change, move, or create new sites. Regrettably, it also involves closures.”
The horse racing industry and the province agreed to the slots-at-racetracks program in 1998. The program calls for racetracks to host the province’s slots facilities and in return, the province agreed to a revenue-sharing program by which 20% is split between the tracks and horseman.
The rest of the revenue goes to the Ontario government and municipalities that host live racing. The horse racing industry has collected an average of $345 million per year, which mainly goes toward the funding of purses and in some cases capital improvements.
Economic data put forth in a study by the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association shows that 60,000 Ontarians may be out of work, and the government will lose the $1.1 billion it receives annually if the program ends.
“It makes absolutely no sense for the government to continue to push less-profitable forms of gaming, when over the last 14 years, the horse racing industry has proven to be its best partner,” said Sue Leslie, who heads the OHRIA and the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
With the industry now in limbo, the OHRIA will go back and speak with the government and educate the public on the importance of the program to the provincial economy, she said.
“We’ve got to do a better job of educating our public as to exactly what this program means to them,” Leslie said. “We’re providing our government with over a billion dollars a year, and they’re putting this program in jeopardy on the hope that the new program they’re going to create is going to make more.”
Should the government proceed with its plan and move slots out of racetracks, tracks around the province will likely not be able to support live racing. Leslie believes the province has sent a clear message that there will be racetrack closures.
“Every time you close a racetrack, you contract the number of horses that are required in the industry, and when you contract the number of horses that are required, you contract the number of farms and employees required,” she said. “There will be people on welfare and unemployment lines and nothing driving the economy in those rural municipalities.”
As of March 12 it was unclear if the OLG plans to pull the plug or rework the program so some tracks keep their gaming operations. It’s also not known if tracks could bid for slots as private enterprises.
The top slots operation in Ontario is that of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, which has machines at Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway. There was no immediate comment from WEG on the latest developments.