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Ontario horse racing can survive without slots, report says

A three-person panel reporting to the Ontario government believes a sustainable horse racing industry is possible — even without the Slots at Racetracks Program.

Flamboro Downs among those to lose provincial slots

A new report shows that racetracks such as Flamboro Downs can survive even when the province removes its slots.

Racetracks such as Flamboro Downs can be sustainable even if the province removes its slots, says a new report from a three-member panel reporting to the Ontario government.

In a report released Tuesday, the panel found no examples of a viable horse racing industry without some form of public support, the report says.

But "even so, the panel found it would be a mistake to reinstate [the Slots at Racetracks Program]."

More than 60 per cent of purse money awarded in Ontario comes from the slots program.

At Flamboro Downs, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) operates 801 slots, which provide $4.4 million to the city.

The OLG's lease at Flamboro Downs ends in March 2013. The OLG has offered the city a new casino, although in past votes, councillors have expressed their preference for keeping gaming at Flamboro Downs.

In Tuesday's report, the panel recommended slashing the number of live race dates to about 800 across the province to offset monetary losses.

"Substantial purses will be maintained," the panel says.

It doesn't rule out government support of the industry, however.

First, in August, it found the $50 million the government planned to spend during the next three years in an effort to transition to a sustainable future is "insufficient." However, it makes no recommendation of how much is sufficient.

It also said tracks will require government investment in their operations.

Another recommendation is the creation of additional streams of gaming revenue at tracks.

Options include a racing-specific lottery; sports books which include single-event sports betting if that's approved by Ottawa; and a new pari-mutuel game called "historical horse racing" which involves betting through an electronic terminal on the outcome of past races, which are not identified to the player.

Ted McMeekin, Minister of Agriculture and MPP of Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, couldn't comment on exactly what the findings mean to Flamboro Downs. But he is pleased with the report.

"This panel report outlines a set of principles which, if applied, will drive an industry that's consumer focused and will concentrate on its transition in becoming more consumer friendly," he told CBC Hamilton.

"That has to be good news for an industry that four months ago thought they were gone."

But Taras Natyshak, Essex NDP MPP, said the report indicates that the Liberals need to do more to "fix the crisis.

"The report makes it quite clear that the Liberal government was wrong in its decision to leave the horse racing industry out in the cold," said Natyshak.

Hamilton city councillor Sam Merulla said he anticipates fewer races and fewer racetracks will stay open.

"Our position is that Flamboro be one of them," he said. "We've been leaders in that provincewide."

Merulla says he is glad to "at least hear some discussion on the matter."

The report estimates that if racetracks were given a monopoly on sports books, the industry could net $50 million annually.

The panel also suggests that the minimum number of tracks required to allow the industry to survive is six.