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Meet the people who fear casino's exit from Western Fair will cost them their livelihood

Those whose livelihoods are tied to horse racing say there are no sure bets for their future now that Gateway Casino, and its $6.2 million lease, intends to leave the Western Fair District.

Lease money helped backstop local racing, but will the province be willing to step in?

The Raceway at Western Fair is one of only two Ontario tracks that offer an entire winter season of live standardbred racing. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

It's a decision that threatens the livelihood of anyone whose paycheque is tied to horse racing in southern Ontario. 

But like trying to pick a winner from a list of horses, no one knows exactly how Gateway Casinos' decision to leave London's Western Fair District will play out. Many are girding for the worst.

Gateway currently pays $6.2 million in annual lease payments to the Western Fair. But instead of renewing and renovating, the company has leased a property in southwest London where they intend to build a new casino. Their lease expires in 2020.

That move leaves the future of standardbred action at Western Fair District's Raceway in limbo because horse racing doesn't earn enough revenue to support itself. 

Those in the industry say the Raceway is essential because it's one of only three Ontario tracks that offer live standardbred racing through the entire winter season. 

CBC News visited the Raceway to gauge how those in an embattled industry are looking to an uncertain future. 

The announcer 

Originally from Prince Edward Island, track announcer and handicapper Shannon 'Sugar' Doyle has called races at the Western Fair Raceway since 2013. He feels racing and the casino should go 'hand-in-hand,' with each helping the other draw bettors. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Shannon 'Sugar' Doyle hosts a televised pre-race show that supplies picks and analysis for horseplayers. He also calls each race in his booming baritone voice. 

Originally from Prince Edward Island, Doyle left a job at a track in Edmonton five years ago to be a part of the race-day team in London. 

He admits his job is threatened by Gateway's decision to leave. He'd like to see the casino stay and form a partnership that would benefit both businesses. 

"To me, the two go hand-in-hand," he said of the casino and racing. "If there's no racing here, the casino gets a little slower, if there's no casino here, maybe the racing gets slower as well. I don't want to see that happen."

"[Gateway's decision to leave] is a serious deal. If there's no racing, that's going to maybe leave me looking for jobs outside the province, I don't want to do that. I love being part of the great team we have here."

The racing director

With Gateway Casino planning to leave, racing director Greg Blanchard says the provincial government should find a way to support London's racetrack. 'We've got to find a way to fill that void,' he said. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Western Fair's racing director Greg Blanchard sees Gateway's decision to leave as just another challenge to an industry that has weathered many crises over the years. 

Back in 2012, the Wynne government ended a program that shared slot machine revenue with horse racing and flowed $345 million a year in to the industry. Blanchard said its cancellation was "big jolt" that forced horse racing to modernize to stay alive.

For example like most tracks, the Raceway lets bettors watch and wager on tracks from as far away as Australia and South Africa.

They can also get handicapping information, watch races and bet in one web portal from home. That widens the possible market, but it also gives bettors more choice about where their dollars go. This is a kind of built-in competition that can draw money away from the local track's handle (the amount of money wagered).

On the Wednesday night CBC visited, there were few fans to watch the horses run around a snow-blown racetrack.

But Blanchard says that doesn't mean there's no action. The track's handle on six meets in January averaged $347,000, with most of that money coming from bettors at home.

Despite all the innovations, Blanchard says racing needs some kind of steady support from government. 

​"We've been waiting for some stability and we're hoping we're going to get that," he said. "If we get that stability, then we can focus on how to grow our business."  

But should public dollars be used to prop up a form of entertainment that by many accounts has a shrinking fan base? Blanchard said opponents of government support should keep in mind that racing is an industry with roots that reach deep into rural Ontario. 

"You look at the guys that supply the feed, the blacksmiths ... there's just so much spin-off and so many jobs rely on it," he said.

He said about 50 employees work a typical racing night, everyone from security people to race officials to workers who clear snow off the track.

The trainer 

With race purses static or falling in recent years, trainer Mark Horner says it's getting tougher to make a living in an industry with high overheads. He suggests adding a full-blown sports betting operation at track locations, with the racing industry getting a share. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Mark Horner owns 33 horses. 

Earlier this month, he wrote a letter to Doug Ford, calling on the premier to find a way to support local racing.

"Without it, I can most certainly project a horrendous loss of jobs in rural Ontario and the certain collapse of our industry," he wrote. 

Horner said it's a challenge to keep operating as costs continue to rise while purses — the money paid to winning racers — have held steady or declined. 

"We're doing okay right now but it's not what it was," he said. "We've had to cut back."

To replace the casino money, Horner would like to see a full-blown sports betting operation added to the track, something he says has helped tracks in the United States. 

"If Western Fair doesn't succeed, there will be no racing at this end of the province and it will be devastating for a lot of families," he said. "As you can see, it's a busy place, there's 80 trucks out there in the parking lot. It's a big spin-off. It's in everybody's best interest to make it go."

The driver

After almost 40 years driving standardbred race horses, Dennis Duford plans to retire soon, but worries about the next generation. 'We’re not racing for enough money to survive,' he said. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Though he will turn 70 next year, Dennis Duford still drives standardbred racehorses. It's a job that can be physically demanding, even dangerous. 

"We're not racing for enough money to survive, and it's been hard on us," said Duford, a third generation driver who's raced for almost 40 years. "We've been struggling along, hoping it will come back. For me, it doesn't matter because I'm ready to retire. For the young people, it's too bad. A lot of people will lose their jobs."

The bettor 

Regular bettor Dalton Noels believes Gateway will have a tough time making money after building a new location in southwest London. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Most race nights Dalton Noels can be found at the track, pencil in hand, going over the racing program.

He doesn't bet at the distant tracks; he prefers to focus his wagers at the Raceway, where he closely follows the performance of the horses, drivers and trainers familiar to him.

He's worried the track won't survive Gateway's departure. But he also says track operators share some of the blame for not putting money into marketing and track improvements when the slot revenue was flowing.

He also thinks Gateway is going to have a tough time succeeding at a new location. 

"Ten years down the road, where is the money going to come from?" he said. "The casino won't have it because there's no good paying jobs anymore. They're gone. But if the casino doesn't support the track, we're gone."


About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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