Flamboro vet says more horses dying because of slots decision

More Hamilton-area horses are dying and more are being slaughtered for meat in light of uncertainty about the future of Ontario's racing industry, a Flamborough-area equine veterinarian says.
A standardbred racing driver is silhouetted while practicing at Flamboro Downs. A local vet says more horses are being killed since the government cancelled its Slots at Racetracks program. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press) (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

More Hamilton-area horses are dying and more are being slaughtered for meat in light of uncertainty about the future of Ontario's racing industry, a Flamborough-area equine veterinarian says.

Dr. Ken Armstrong, a veterinarian at Halton Equine Veterinary Services, deals with many racehorses that compete at Flamboro Downs.

Since the province cancelled its Slots at Racetracks program on March 31, more racehorse owners are having their animals sent for slaughter, Armstrong said.

Armstrong doesn't have exact numbers. But with the potential for a drastically reduced horseracing industry, "there is no doubt that it's happening," said Armstrong, a 45-year veterinarian whose Freelton-area practice is about 80 per cent racehorses.

'Horses just disappear'

Some horses are used as driving horses, he said. But several end up at the Ontario Livestock Exchange in Kitchener to be killed for meat.

The Livestock Exchange did not respond to a request for comment.

"Horses just disappear, and that's where the dealers come in," Armstrong said. "I see them all the time driving down the roads in trucks and trailers."

Horses are a labour of love, he said, and "if you can't make ends meet, the labour is not worth it."

But Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin says this outcry is a little suspect.

"They're clinging to this specter of thousand upon thousands of horses dying and being turned into horse meat," McMeekin said.

According to the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel Interim Report, around 3,500 standardbred horses are retired from racing each year as it is.

But due to limited funds and a lack of permanent homes, the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society only arranged 24 horse adoptions last year.

Although some horses end up finding homes privately, the report says many end up euthanized because of a lack of "lifecycle planning" — essentially, planning to keep a horse after its racing career has finished rather than killing it.

One of the report's authors, John Snobelen, told CBC Hamilton that veterinarians could have a great impact on the health of race horses if they would treat horses with "their entire lifecycle in mind."

He used cortisone injections as an example. Some vets, he says, will inject a horse with cortisone to keep the animal running when injured.

"It's a cheap way to get the horse back up and on the track," he said.

McMeekin says the government is trying to "set the table" for the horse industry to save itself.

"We owe that to the industry," he said. "But I'm not making any decisions to kill a horse. I've never killed a horse in my life, and I don't plan to."

'Trainers have left the province'

Money generated from the Slots at Racetracks program was split between the horse industry, track owners and the province. The slots program generated $345 million for the horse industry each year.

A transition panel has recommended the province slash the number of race dates in half. The Ontario Harness Horse Association told CBC News this week that the report marks the death of the industry.

The program's cancellation has wide-reaching economic implications locally, Armstrong said.

Many trainers have left the province, he said. Manufacturers of horse trailers will suffer. Even hay farmers and barn builders are feeling the pinch.

"I realize that killing horses is sensationalism, but there's a human and economic impact that is far greater than that," he said.

"Every aspect of this business is going to be hit, and that means labour and individuals, and with individuals come families."

Shayna Belanger has been involved with the horse racing industry for almost 20 years. She says the government's decision to cut the Slots at Racetracks program has decimated the industry.

"There was no transition period," she said. "They cut us off at the knees."

Currently, more than 60 per cent of purse money awarded in Ontario horse races comes from the Slots at Racetracks Program — something McMeekin says just doesn't make sense.

 "We can't be giving out $40,000 in prizes with no one in the stands."

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, which operates 801 slots in Flamborough, is negotiating a short-term lease with Flamboro Downs to extend past the March 31 expiration of the current lease.

But the impact of the government's decision is already being felt, Armstrong said.

"There isn't a training centre now that isn't advertising that stalls are available."