Election fights are often referred to as horse races. But it’s not often that horse racing itself actually emerges as one of the campaign issues. The horses — and how to fund them — have now trotted their way into the Ontario campaign's starting gate.
The issue began two years ago, when the McGuinty Liberal government announced the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks program. That program, which formally ended in March 2013, saw a percentage of revenue from slot machines at raceways go to purse money.
It was worth about $345 million a year to the tracks.
The horse-racing industry warned that without that slot money, many tracks were at risk of closing and thousands of jobs could be lost.
The backlash prompted Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne last year to announce $400 million in funding over five years to help the industry transition — an amount since increased to $500 million.
But it hasn't been enough to stop some closures.
Sudbury Downs cancels 2014 season
On Monday, Sudbury Downs announced the cancellation of all live racing at the track this year, citing a lack of adequate funding from the province. About 100 jobs will be lost.
NDP Leader Andrew Horwath pledged at a campaign stop in St. Catharines on Tuesday that she would restore the lost funding.
"Sudbury Downs is dark now this season because of the Liberals wrong-handed decision," she said. "[The] Slots at Racetracks program will be brought back to life in Ontario under an NDP government and we’ll be partnering with all of the horse people and the tracks to make sure we reinvigorate the industry that for some reason the Liberals have decided to kill off."
At a later campaign stop at the racetrack in Fort Erie, Horwath repeated the message. "A plan that makes sense is to create that partnership again between the Slots and the tracks and make sure that rural Ontario and smalltown Ontario has a horse-racing industry again to sustain good jobs."
Kathleen Wynne was in Sudbury Tuesday afternoon, where she faced questions about the Sudbury Downs season cancellation.
"I said that we needed to revamp the horse-racing industry and make sure that we work with the industry to make it sustainable. That's why there's $500 million on the table and that's why 16 of 17 tracks have got a deal," she said.
"I wish that Sudbury Downs had been able to work with us and that we'd been able to come to an agreement. That wasn't the case, but I also hope that it's not a permanent situation."
PC Leader Tim Hudak criticized the Liberals' racing policy during a campaign stop Tuesday in Pickering. "The Liberal policy is going to toss tens of thousands of people out of work," he said. "Sudbury Downs, now not racing. Kawartha Downs, down to a few handful of days. Fort Erie racetrack on life support."
Sudbury Progressive Conservative candidate Paula Peroni on Monday called for the restoration of the Slots at Racetracks program.
Last month, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk criticized what she called Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s "abrupt" cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks program without consulting adequately with stakeholders.
"OLG developed its modernization plan without sufficiently consulting such stakeholders as municipalities and the horse-racing industry," Lysyk said.
Two months ago, a group of 35 standardbred horse breeders sued the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. for $65 million over the cancellation.
The notice of claim asked for $60 million for "negligence and/or intentional misrepresentation, breach of contract and unjust enrichment," and $5 million in punitive damages.