State of 'desperation' for Flamborough horse racing

Flamborough horse owners are still in a state of "desperation" as they await the return of racing at Flamboro Downs, says the head of an association representing hundreds of owners in the Hamilton area.

OLG preparing to put call out for potential Hamilton casino operators

Horse trainer Callie Rankin is among the roughly 3,000 Flamborough-area residents whose livelihood depends on the horse-racing industry. Horse owners have had an uncertain summer with no racing at Flamboro Downs. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Flamborough horse owners are still in a state of "desperation" as they await the return of racing at Flamboro Downs, says the head of an association representing hundreds of owners in the Hamilton area.

There's no racing at Flamboro Downs this summer. It's scheduled to resume in early November. That means a few months of no income for hundreds of horse owners in the Hamilton area, said Brian Tropea, president of the Ontario Harness Horse Association.

"It's a state of desperation right now," he told CBC Hamilton on Wednesday. "A lot of people have already divested their holdings. Those that could have sold out and found a market for their horses. A lot have moved out of Ontario and into the U.S."

Even those still racing fear a cut to the number of race days and a reduced pot of money, Tropea said.

Paul MacKenzie holds a sign supporting the horse racing industry at a meeting at city hall in February. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Right now, "(the track) sitting there empty and the slots continue to operate," he said. "The only people who have been hurt is the horse people."

The racing industry has been in a state of flux since last March, when the province ended its Slots at Racetracks program. That program saw a percentage of slot revenue used to fund race winnings.

At the same time, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation introduced a "modernization" plan, which will see gaming redistributed in some parts of the province. The OLG is about to issue a request for proposal qualification (RFPQ) to examine prospective bidders for a casino in Hamilton.

The city voted in February that Flamborough Downs is a preferred location for a casino. But it will consider other sites if Flamboro Downs is found to "not be a viable site," the motion read.

Transition panel still working

A horse racing transition panel under the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is examining the future of racing in Ontario and its tie to the OLG. The panel's preliminary recommendations are being implemented, said Ted McMeekin, former agriculture minister and MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale.

"The panel is out there working as hard as they can to move as quickly as they can," he said.

The panel is in negotiations to look at "enhanced revenue for the tracks, and at least indirectly for the horse-racing industry," McMeekin said.

The lack of racing at Flamboro Downs this summer is the decision of the owner, which is Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, and not the province, McMeekin said.

"For whatever reason or combination of reasons, the track didn't see (summer racing) as viable for them," he said.

'It's pretty tough'

That's left many horse racers and trainers without income, said Coun. Robert Pasuta, a Flamborough farmer who represents ward 14.

Those with a little money saved are doing OK for now, Pasuta said. Many are trying to reduce the number of horses but have few willing buyers.

"From what I hear from some of them, it's pretty tough," he said. "It'll be the ones that have a little bit of cash in their pockets that will survive."

Many farmers who grow hay for the horses have switched to growing corn or soybeans, he said. Driving through Flamborough, the community looks the same. But the uncertainty is there.

"You have to be at the local restaurant at Peter's Corners and hear them talking," he said.

New ideas could come forward

Pasuta has some optimism. Like McMeekin, he's heard rumblings that the panel will bring forward some new ideas.

"I don't think it's going to be the total doom and gloom that it looked like," he said. "I think there are things coming forward. But no doubt, this is going to continue to eliminate a whole bunch of them."

On July 18, Minister of Finance Charles Sousa nominated Philip Olsson to be new chair of the OLG's board of directors. Olsson's goal, said a Sousa media release, is "better integration with horseracing." But Tropea said no one is sure yet what that means.

On the casino front, the OLG is preparing to issue an RFPQ for the Hamilton zone, said spokesperson Tony Bitonti.

The corporation has completed the process for southwestern Ontario. The process for the central area, which includes Hamilton, Brantford, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, will begin later this year.

Casino interest in Hamilton

Gaming operators are interested in Hamilton, Bitonti said.

"Whether they have been public or want to stay quiet, they're doing they're homework," he said. "They're looking around. They're talking to city staff. They're doing the work."

The winning bidder will continue to operate Flamboro Downs, at least temporarily. The OLG's lease with Flamboro Downs for 801 slot machines ended on March 31. But both sides are finalizing a shorter-term lease, likely for three to five years, Bitonti said.

"The negotiations are over and we're waiting for final signatures," he said. "We believe it's imminent."

The OLG expects to choose an operator in early 2014.


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca