By Kathy Yanchus
There wasn’t much news, let alone good news, about the horse racing industry’s future emanating from a town hall meeting hosted by Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale Progressive Conservative candidate Donna Skelly last Monday night at the Dutch Mill Country Market.
Although the meeting, attended by three Tory MPPs, was held to discuss local agricultural issues, questions predominantly focused on the provincial government’s proposed gaming modernization plan and what it means for local breeders, farmers and track owners.
The government’s decision to build casinos and eliminate the Slots at the Racetrack Program effectively destroys the financial lifeline for the horse racing industry, which employs approximately 60,000 people in Ontario.
“It was a very bad decision that the government made, but they made it nonetheless. They need to change their mind and they can see it, but they just don’t seem to be willing to,” said former Tory minister of agriculture, Ernie Hardeman, MPP for Oxford. “If they allow the industry to fail, I don’t think a future government could resurrect it. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to correct it before it’s fatal.”
Even current Liberal Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin agreed his government ‘dropped the ball’, said Hardeman referring to a quote from the ADFW MPP featured in a recent issue of The Hamilton Spectator.
“But then why didn’t he (McMeekin) speak up on behalf of Ontario farmers and his constituents?” he said.
Monte McNaughton, MPP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex brought forth a private member’s bill calling for referendums before any new casinos were built in Ontario.
“Of course it passed second reading and then the Liberals prorogued the house which killed my bill,” said McNaughton, PC critic for Economic Development and Innovation.
What the Tories propose is putting a halt on the new casinos, doing away with the OLG, and giving “first crack to the horse racing industry to buy the existing slots at fair market value,” said McNaughton.
A detailed PC plan for the horse racing industry is still several weeks away, “but that’s the direction we’re going,” said McNaughton.
The Tories’ proposals are “welcome and great but it’s very long-term and time dependent,” said one race- horse owner, who mused, “should we be expecting any kind of an announcement before March 31, or do we just close up shop?”
“We don’t know what the government or the OLG has planned,” said McNaughton. “It’s all being done under a veil of secrecy. When the house goes back (Feb. 19), we’ll be asking questions on the issue. It’s going to be up to her (premier-designate Kathleen Wynne) now until there is an election, what happens.”
Hardeman was not optimistic about Wynne’s commitment to the industry.
“I don’t believe that today, of all the challenges she has and the comments she has made, that this is going to be the first thing she’s going to address,” said Hardeman of the future of horse racing.
A reversal of the decision would depend on how far along the process was when a change of government occurred, said Hardeman, adding there were only two upcoming opportunities for a possible election, being after the Throne Speech, or following the budget, which must be presented before the end of April.
The government will do everything they can to negotiate a budget or throne speech that will please one of the opposition parties to avoid going to the polls, said Hardeman. And if the horse racing dilemma was part of those negotiations, it’s possible that support could be included, he added.
There was “a lot of doom and gloom” in the air, piped up one audience member who expressed his frustration at the looming deadline and lack of a concrete plan to save the local industry.
“I know about the hard work and the passion,” said the racehorse owner as the meeting concluded. “It’s pretty sad thinking it’s all done. That’s all I can say, it’s sad. I think the PCs are trying, but it’s so time dependent. We’re going to run out of time and things will not be reversed.”