TORONTO – Ontario’s governing Liberals will spend up to $400 million over five years to help shore up the province’s struggling horse-racing industry, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Friday.
It’s an “investment in the future,” she said after making the announcement at the Grand River Raceway in Elora.
“I believe that this industry has the capacity to be and is dynamic and exciting, and it’s one that can deliver the products that today’s customers want and that provide economic benefits to the communities that house Ontario’s racetracks,” Wynne said.
“I believe that this plan will make that happen.”
The five-year plan was devised by a three-member panel appointed by the Liberals after they cancelled the slots-at-racetracks program, which brought in about $345 million a year for racetracks.
It released a report Friday that recommended the government inject up to $80 million a year in the sector starting next April, mainly to help cover purses and the costs of live racing.
It also called for a standard-bred racing alliance to operate a “world class racing circuit” with eight tracks — Hanover, Clinton, Grand River, Western Fair, Flamboro, Georgian, Mohawk and Woodbine.
It will reduce industry costs and enhance revenues by concentrating all resident-based thoroughbred live racing at Woodbine, the report said.
The panel doesn’t support a full race calendar at Fort Erie’s track, based on its business plan and quantity and calibre of racing. But it endorses the current 30-day calendar at Ajax Downs.
Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, said while there are many positives to come out of the report, work remains to be done on standardbred grassroots racing and thoroughbred racing at Fort Erie Race Track.
“There are still many aspects of the report which need further dialogue and clarification especially in relation to grassroots racing, the survival of racing at Fort Erie Race Track and securing the necessary investment to ensure the breeding industry survives its severe decline,” Leslie said in a release.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said he was “deeply saddened” by the panel’s position on his hometown’s racetrack.
“This is probably the death knell for the Fort Erie Race Track, a town I grew up in,” he said in Toronto.
The minority Liberals, propped up by the New Democrats, are probably going to shutter the doors on a 125-year-old institution “and toss all the people out of work,” Hudak said.
Conservative critic Jim Wilson, who represents Simcoe-Grey, said the damage has already been done in rural Ontario.
“Along the highways and back roads, you see horse equipment, horse trailers, buggies — everything up for sale in the ditches. A lot of the farms have gone bankrupt,” he said.
“So thousands of people have been thrown out, and the fact of the matter is, it’s criminal what they did.”
The amount of money available for the purses next year — about $130 million — will be a little more than half of what it used to be.
What it means is horse people will have to travel further to compete for less money and have fewer chances at winning, said New Democrat Taras Natyshak.
It’s the “last straw” for people who relied solely on horseracing for their livelihoods, he said.
“Immediately today, have your hours cut and your days of work cut and your wages cut, and see if it remains viable for you to maintain that job,” Natyshak said. “Many would say no.”
Wynne said horse racing will be integrated into a provincial gambling strategy with Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to find new revenue streams.
Racetracks will need to provide business cases to get the provincial money.
The slots-at-racetracks program wasn’t transparent or accountable, and the new measures will ensure that everyone knows where the money is going, the premier said.
“There wasn’t a requirement for the kind of transparent business plan that I think we need from all of the tracks,” she said.
“And so what I want is to have an industry that is wide open to the public, that people understand how it works. That’s why we needed to recalibrate.”
The government also plans to restructure the Ontario Racing Commission into two divisions: one that will continue to regulate the industry and a separate one to distribute funding and work with the OLG on industry development.
Former cabinet minister — and panel member — Elmer Buchanan will become chairman of the ORC, pending approval by cabinet and a legislative committee, the government said.
The panel had earlier concluded the slot machine revenue had accounted for 64 per cent of the annual income for the horse-racing sector, and more than 60 per cent of purse money.
The Ontario Horse Racing and Breeding Association has said having slot machines at 17 Ontario racetracks used to generate $1.1 billion in profits for the province each year.
When the slots-at-racetracks program was cancelled last year under former premier Dalton McGuinty, the Liberals said the government could not afford a “subsidy” to the horse-racing industry.
The program dates back to the late 1990s, when the previous Tory government approached the racing industry about installing slot machines at racetracks.
Because the slots would compete with the horse racing, they negotiated an agreement to give the racing industry a cut of the revenues.
Economist Don Drummond recommended that the province review the revenue-sharing deal in his report on what measures the Liberals must take to slay the $11-billion deficit by 2017-18.