Many Flamborough racehorse owners say their livelihoods are on the verge of ruin, and they want to make sure politicians know it.

Worried horse owners packed the seats at a city-held public forum at Waterdown District High School about a possible Hamilton casino on Wednesday evening. Many posed questions to a panel that included the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), the Canadian Gaming Association and Flamboro Downs Horse Racing Operations.

gi-flambforum2-300

Robert Murray from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (left) discusses the social hazards of gambling as Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's Medical Officer of Health, and Atif Kerbusi of McMaster University listen. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The horse owners said they're desperate and distressed after the cancellation of the province's Slots at Racetracks program, which threatens the future of Flamboro Downs.

"Something doesn't smell right with the OLG," said Michelle McEneny, whose family depends on their five racehorses.

"The horsemen are in a panic. A lot of people have lost their jobs. We've lost thousands of dollars already."

The meeting was the first of two public forums to answer questions and gather feedback about a possible casino. The OLG is undergoing a modernization process designed to increase gambling revenue in the province.

City council has until March 1 to vote on whether it wants a gaming facility, and if so, where it can be located. Private operators will bid to run it, with OLG selecting the winning bidder.

Residents are nervous

William Rankin of Sydenham Road has been in the horse business for 50 years. He has four employees and 16 horses. His son-in-law is a blacksmith.

Rankin brought a horse to the forum to draw attention to the cause. After the meeting, "I don't feel any better," he said. "Everybody's walking nervous."

Coun. Robert Pasuta, who represents Ward 14 in Flamborough, is hearing the pro-horseracing message loud and clear from his constituents.

Thursday's meeting:

City hall council chambers, 71 Main St. W.

6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Cable 14 will air the meeting live

Submit questions online 

"They're upset," he said.

Many hope for positive developments from a three-member panel struck by Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin, who is also MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale.

'Heart set on Flamboro Downs'

Pasuta supports the status quo, which is slots and racing at Flamboro Downs, and will only vote for that.

"I have my heart set on Flamboro Downs."

None of the panelists could promise continued racing at Flamboro Downs. Bruce Barbour, executive director of Flamboro Downs Horse Racing Operations, said racing can only continue with government support.

Panelist Tony Bitonti, spokesperson for OLG, said the corporation believes racing will survive without the province.

"There was horseracing before there was a Slots at Racetracks program," he said. "We believe there will be a horseracing industry without the Slots at Racetracks program. It will be up to the private sector to decide whether to keep the slots at racetracks or not."

gi-flambforum-300

Jason Small, president of the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce, holds the microphone as horse owner Michelle McEneny questions the panel. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

3,000 jobs at stake

Horse owners aren't the only Flamborough residents worried about their livelihoods. Flamboro Downs employs more than 1,000 people, and about 70 per cent of them live in Hamilton, said Ted Mansell, executive vice-president of the Service Employees International Union local 2.

With spin-off jobs, about 3,000 people rely on Flamboro Downs for work, Mansell said.

"With this 'new and improved' situation, they're feeling very vulnerable."

Six city councillors attended the forum, which drew about 250 people. The panel also included:

  • Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's Medical Officer of Health
  • Robert Murray from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health
  • Paul Burns from the Canadian Gaming Association
  • Atif Kerbusi, professor in McMaster University's department of economics
  • Deputy Chief Ken Leenderste from Hamilton Police Service

Another forum Thursday

David Adames, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, also attended the forum. The chamber will survey members by early February about their opinions on a casino.

Currently, members veer from pro-casino, to anti-casino, to reserving judgment until they learn the details.

"Whether the chamber will actually take a position or not, I don't know yet," Adames said. But "we're encouraging members to be informed and involved."

There is another public forum on Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the city hall council chambers.

The forum will be broadcast live in Cable 14 and streamed on the city's website.