By Catherine O’Hara
Horse racing will live on at Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) facilities after the not-for-profit corporation reached an agreement in principle with the province and secured an undisclosed amount of transition funding.
The agreement between WEG and the government will ensure that live horse racing continues at Woodbine and Mohawk Racetracks beyond March 31, when the current Slots at Racetracks Program is set to expire.
The high-stakes sport will operate under a new funding model, which will require track operators to meet certain accountability and transparency requirements.
“I will go to bed tonight secure in the knowledge that world class horse racing in Ontario will not only survive but will thrive,” said Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale.
While this is good new for the horse racing industry, which has been racing towards an uncertain future since the government announced the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program last March, the agreement in principle between WEG and the province has a two-year shelf life.
“This long-awaited agreement offers stability while WEG and our partners in horse racing work with government towards a long-term sustainability solution,” said Jim Lawson, chairman of the WEG board of directors. “It’s clear to us that this is only a short-term fix, and sustainability can only be achieved by the integration of horse racing into the province’s gaming strategy.”
Now that the province has reached an agreement in principle with the nation’s largest operator of horse racing, McMeekin believes the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, with the help of the transition panel struck to help devise a more sustainable model for the horse racing, will be better positioned to secure deals with other tracks across the province.
“I suspect that the contracts with those tracks will be easier to sign now than they were yesterday at this time,” said the minister. “With Woodbine and Mohawk now in the tent, the big elephants will help us to feed the smaller elephants throughout Ontario.”
The province is currently negotiating with 10 tracks operators, including Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, the owner of Flamboro Downs. McMeekin expects agreements with other tracks will be announced in the coming weeks.
In addition to Wednesday’s agreement with WEG, the province also announced changes to the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) and the horse improvement program.
The ORC, which regulates horse racing in the province, will now fall under the purview of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs instead of the Ministry of Government Services.
“We have made an argument, a successful argument, that that ought to be rolled into the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs because of the key roles it plays in terms of putting in place the racing agenda and monitoring it and securing the industry, generally,” said McMeekin.
Funding for the horse improvement plan, to the tune of $30 million annually, was also announced Wednesday. The funding, noted the agriculture minister, will ensure the continued success of the Ontario Sires Stakes program.
Described as the “Olympic Games for Ontario horses,” the Sires Stakes program “drives a lot of breeders to continue their great work at developing great racing horses,” said McMeekin.
Wednesday’s announcements are just some of many that will come down the pipe in the next few weeks.
“We have a 100-piece puzzle,” said McMeekin. “Of the 100 pieces, suddenly about 65 are now in place.”
Despite the work that has already been completed to move the horse racing industry forward, it’s still unclear how much money the province has set aside to transition it to a more self-sustaining model. When asked how much WEG would receive from the province to continue its operation, McMeekin said he wasn’t at liberty to release the figure for fear of hampering ongoing negotiations with other tracks.
“I can’t give you a number because if I did, that would tip the government and panel’s hand with respect to the other tracks and that would be not be a good start to negotiating a position,” he said.
While the province outlined details of the WEG agreement, the OLG announced it had reached agreements in principle for its slot operations with 10 gaming sites.
“We have longstanding and positive relationships with our site holders and look forward to working with them in the future,” said Rod Phillips, president chief executive officer of OLG.
The Crown corporation says it hopes to finalize agreements with site holders by February 28 and is currently in discussions with other facilities across the province.
Currently, Western Fair District Raceway, Kawartha Downs Racetrack, Woodbine Racetrack, Mohawk Racetrack, Rideau Carleton Raceway, Hanover Raceway, Woodstock Raceway, Dresden Raceway, Sudbury Downs and Clinton Raceway, have reached agreements with the OLG.