By Catherine O’Hara
It has been 10 months since the provincial Liberal government made the “controversial” decision to axe the Slots at Racetracks Program and roughly six months since the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, appointed a blue-ribbon panel to consult with the stakeholders and develop a plan that would enable the industry to transition to a more sustainable model. Three months have elapsed since the panel submitted its final recommendations to government and now, only two months remain before the current Slots at Racetracks Program winds down. Today, the industry knows little about its future. As a result, it is bracing for the worst, while hoping for the best.
“We know very little about what the future holds,” said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA).
The lack of information has left horsemen and women across the province with little choice but to start making difficult decisions.
In Carlisle, horseman Shane Arsenault has had to cut back on his operation. So far, he has reduced the size of his stable by a third and laid off one of his employees, who remains unemployed.
“I’m probably going to be a third of the size that I was with no employees,” said Arsenault, adding, “Everybody is reducing.”
The transition panel, comprised of former cabinet ministers John Snobelen, John Wilkinson and Elmer Buchanan, has called for fewer races at fewer tracks and a different funding model than the current Slots at Racetracks Program, which saw 10 per cent of slot revenues go to the horse racing industry to help fund purse pools.
“There is supposed to be a mechanism in place under the new model where purse money will be allocated from some body that manages horse racing,” noted Tropea. “Where it is earned and how it is distributed is anybody’s guess at this point.”
The transition panel is working with racetrack operators to negotiate agreements to ensure Ontario’s horse racing tradition lives on – albeit on a smaller scale.
“We’re in the final stages,” said Snobelen, who attended and spoke at the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce’s Jan. 16 meeting at Dutch Mill Country Market, where McMeekin was the guest speaker. “We know that there are critical decisions to be made in the next few weeks in the horse racing industry in Ontario.”
As breeding season nears, the former Progressive Conservative MPP said it was imperative for the province to execute its plan in a timely fashion to ensure racing continues beyond Mar. 31.
“We’ve been pushing as hard as we can to make sure that decisions can be made across the board as quickly as possible,” said Snobelen to approximately 50 people who turned out to last Wednesday morning’s meeting. “I think we’ve got a willing government and willing partners in the industry to make a deal that will result in a sustainable industry.”
Despite the panel’s efforts, Arsenault claims it’s too little too late.
“The breeders have already sustained huge losses and horse people, now, we’re just trying to survive,” he said. “The damage all across the province is huge.”
The government, assured Snobelen, has committed resources to transition the industry. “There are several agreements that need to be negotiated to make that real. We are underway with some of those key agreements right now,” he said.
Announcements about the new model, what it will look like, how many races there will be and at what racetracks, are expected by the end of the month. These, said Snobelen, will send “some strong signals” to the industry.
Tropea, however, isn’t confident the government’s plan will make way for a sustainable industry.
“I have no reason to be optimistic that there is going to be a viable industry going forward,” he said. “And I hope, beyond hope, that I am wrong.”