While the horse racing industry impatiently awaits details, last week’s press conference at Grand River Raceway with Kathleen Wynne, the new Premier of Ontario and Minister of Agriculture, wanted to provide assurance that there was a sustainable future for the horse racing industry to which her government is committed.
Last year the McGuinty government suddenly announced the end of the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) as of March 31, 2013, removing $345 million from the racing business and throwing the industry into chaos.
“There’s a full range of jobs supported by this industry and I understand that,” said Wynne, “and that’s why minister McMeekin set up the transition panel because we recognized that we really needed to take a look at the decision that had been made and we needed to make sure that there weren’t enormous unintended consequences of the decision that was made last year.”
“What we’re saying is that we understand there needs to be a transition period in order for the industry to adjust to a new model,” said Wynne. “That’s your sober second thought.”
“We’re working to ensure that the dates for the 2013 racing season will be in place and provide long-term stability to the industry because those are the two questions that have been floating: is there going to be a season this year, and what’s the long-term viability of the industry?”
As that March 31 deadline looms, Wynne announced that four more tracks – Grand River, Western Fair, Clinton and Hanover – had reached three-year transitional funding agreements, joining Mohawk and Woodbine. Those six tracks together represent 80 percent of the wagering that happened last year in Ontario. All 14 tracks have rental agreements in principal to lease their facilities to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG).
Dollar amounts have yet to be released while negotiations are on-going, said Wynne, who will continue to enlist the advice of the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel, former cabinet ministers John Snobelin, John Wilkinson and Elmer Buchanan, to guide the establishment of what she calls a “new model” for sustainable horse racing in the province.
There are negotiations going on with all of the tracks and the owners and operators are going to have to make a decision about whether they are willing to be part of the new model, said Wynne, and that’s the conversation that’s happening right now.
The third component of her announcement involved the “overall modernization” of the administration of horse racing. “One of the key recommendations of the panel was to integrate horse racing with the provincial gaming strategy and I am committing to the sector that we’re going to work to make that happen,” said Wynne. This includes providing access for tracks to revenue from new and different gaming opportunities.
John Snobelin, one of several politicians and industry members flanking Wynne during the press conference, explained that in other jurisdictions globally, a symbiotic relationship between gaming and horse racing is the only model that supports a sustainable horse racing industry. He assured people in the industry that, “there is a future that is sustainable based on best practices around the world.”
When asked what she would say to the breeding side of the industry, Wynne acknowledged that they need stability. “Their work is future work… what I would say to them is that we are committed to a sustainable industry.” she replied, “I hope they can take some comfort from what I’ve said today, that we are reaching agreements with tracks.”
“We said we needed a second look at this issue and so we took it,” said Wynne, who is “very pleased that we’ve gotten to this point.”
“We’ve said that a sustainable horse racing industry is going to be a smaller industry. That’s reality that I know the industry is confronting and we’re going to work through this transition with them.”
When asked if transitional funding could still be regarded as a ‘subsidy’ to the industry, Wynne replied that there was an “arrangement” in place. “That arrangement is changing, the industry is evolving, and we’re going to work with them. I don’t think labeling or parsing the semantics around particular words is going to be helpful at this juncture.”
“I think what we need to do now is we need to say, what is in the best interest of the industry? How do we protect the animals? How do we make sure we protect jobs and how do we make sure that we have a viable industry for the people who want to take part in that industry, those who want to enjoy it? So it’s about the jobs, it’s about tourism, it’s about the vibrant industry that has been in this province evolving to a place where it can be sustainable and we know, as government, that we’ve got a role to play in that.”
Up to $30 million will be available for the Horse Improvement Program (HIP) in 2013. The Transition Panel, the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) and breeding industry members are discussing allocation of these funds.
“Today’s announcement sends the right signal of hope and confidence about the future of the horse racing industry in Ontario,” said Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association.