The Ontario government's plan to infuse $400 million over five years into the horse racing industry won't do enough to stem the decline of the sport across the province, says the president of the Ontario Harness Horse Association says.
Brian Tropea said the funding promise pales in comparison to the $345 million dollars a year the industry raked in through the Slots at Racetracks scheme.
'It represents a significant reduction in funding." —Brian Tropea, Ontario Harness Horse Association
That program, which ended in March, saw a percentage of revenue from slot machines at raceways go to purse money.
"It represents a significant reduction in funding," said Tropea. "The slots are still operating at the racetracks. It’s just that the horse people aren’t sharing in that funding anymore."
Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the plan at the Grand River Raceway in Elora, near Guelph, on Friday morning.
“When I came into office, I really felt strongly that having a sustainable horse racing industry is important to the province,” said Wynne, who also serves as the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs.
“It’s part of the culture of the province, and the jobs that are associated with racing are incredibly important."
The plan, which includes changes to how horse racing is regulated, "will set the foundation for jobs for tomorrow," Wynne said. "It will ensure a sustainable future for horse-racing in Ontario."
Fewer races, smaller prizes
Tropea said the new plan will not lead to growth in the industry, which enforced major cuts in racing for the 2013 season. Racing at Flamboro Downs, for example was cut by almost half for 2013.
Citing a report put out by the province, he said the new changes would still result in fewer races and smaller cash prizes than existed before the province ended the Slots at Racetracks scheme, which would make it more difficult for Ontario to compete with racetracks in the United States.
Starting in April, 2014, the report says, purse monies for standardbred horse racing — which represents the bulk of the races in Ontario — will amount to about $70 million per year.
That's down from well over $100 million per year under the Slots at Racetracks program, said Tropea, noting that racetracks in the U.S. are adopting the same funding model that Ontario recently abandoned.
"There’s two main things that drive investment in horse racing: the amount of times you can race and the amount of prize money you can race for."
Request for proposals
Which tracks will qualify for funding under the new plan will depend on the business plans that the government receives, said Mark Cripps, a spokesperson for the ministries of Agriculture and Food, and Rural Affairs.
Operators, he said, will be required to submit proposals to the government before they receive funding. The province will then evaluate the submissions using several criteria.
"The biggest plans will need to be rooted in the principles of accountability, transparency, positive return on investment — because these are public dollars that are going to be invested — and their plan to build a consumer base," said Cripps.
"For horse racing to be sustained moving forward, they’re going to have to get people engaged in the betting. That means bringing in a new generation.”
Great Canadian Gaming, the B.C.-based corporation that operates Hamilton's Flamboro Downs and Innisfil's Georgian Downs, said it would not comment on its plans for those racetracks on Friday afternoon.
"Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate your interview request as we are currently in the process of reviewing the report and trying to get more information on the specifics from [the Ontario Racing Commission]," spokesperson Sonja Mandic wrote in an email.
Period of uncertainty
The future of horse racing in Ontario was put into question after the province ended the Slots at Racetracks program last March.
That month, the province reached funding agreements to save six racetracks for the 2013 season, but critics said the move wasn't enough to secure the future of horse racing in Ontario.
Tropea said the uncertainty caused sales of standardbred horses to "shrink 50 per cent this year over last year."
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The new changes come as part of the provincial government's reform of gambling in Ontario. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation introduced its controversial "modernization" plan, which will change where casinos are located across the province.
The premier announced additional changes to how the industry will be managed by the province. Wynne said horse racing in Ontario will be integrated into the OLG’s modernization plan in a bid to promote the sport to larger audience.
She also said the Ontario Racing Commission will be split into two divisions — one responsible for regulating the industry and the other responsible for funding decisions and working with the OLG to grow the sport’s fan base.
Tropea said he's still eagerly awaiting more information on the long-term restructuring, which, he said, will ultimately decide the future of the province's horse racing industry.
"The biggest part of the puzzle is the intergration with the OLG," he said. "We need to work to generate more revenue for the industry to be competitive with the places in the U.S. that have adopted the same type of program that Ontario has just ended."
Damage already done, Tories say
The new changes are based on a report from the three-person horse racing panel, which the Liberal government appointed after it announced the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks program.
The report urges the province to inject up to $80 million per year over five years, starting next April, mainly to help cover purses and the costs of live racing.
The panel also calls for a standard-bred racing alliance to operate a "world class racing circuit" with eight tracks — Hanover, Clinton, Grand River, Western Fair, Flamboro, Georgian, Mohawk and Woodbine.
However, it says it doesn't recommend a full race calendar at Fort Erie's track but endorses the current 30-day calendar at Ajax Downs.
The Progressive Conservatives say the damage has already been done in rural Ontario, where farms have gone bankrupt and people have lost their jobs.
The report says betting on horse racing has a long history and suggests the industry and Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. work together to maximize the potential of tracks as gaming centres and add new gaming options where permitted.
The three panel members — Elmer Buchanan, John Snobelen and John Wilkinson — are all former Ontario cabinet ministers.