By Catherine O’Hara
Ontario’s standardbred horse industry continues to race towards an uncertain future following the announcement of a proposed plan outlining the new Sustainable Horse Racing Model.
Last week, the final consensus report by a three-member panel tasked to examine the future of horse racing was released. The group’s recommendations, say some horsemen, fail to maintain Ontario’s vibrant industry.
“It’s a huge hit to the standardbred industry,” said Ontario Harness Horse Association general manager, Brian Tropea. “It’s devastating to the horse racing industry,” added Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale’s Progressive Conservative candidate Donna Skelly.
The all-party panel, comprised of former cabinet ministers John Snobelen, John Wilkinson and Elmer Buchanan, proposes slashing annual race days by 48 per cent, from 1,544 to 800. The bulk of the reductions will mostly impact the standardbred horse people as they grapple with a loss of 682 race days over last year’s racing opportunities.
“There will be half the opportunities to race, so if you want to race at the same schedule you’re currently racing, we need to get rid of half the horses, which leads to a significant decline in employment and economic benefit,” said Tropea.
Horsemen and women in the thoroughbred A sector will see less of a reduction in race days, from 165 days in 2011 to a proposed 160 days. In the thoroughbred B class, the panel suggests reducing racing opportunities by 62 per cent from 78 to 30 days.
Purse money, too, will see sharp declines. It its report, the panel says purses should be funded solely by pari-mutuel wagering. Under the current Slots at Racetracks program, which is set to expire on March 31, 2013, purses are largely funded by the industry’s share of slot revenues.
Winning pools for the standardbred industry, should the government implement the panel’s recommendations, would drop from $158.9 million to $63.2 million. This, said Tropea, is not a reasonable decline.
“It’s a crippling blow,” he said. “Ultimately, people are going to try and make a go of it. They’ll find that it’s not a financially viable industry anymore and they’ll move to somewhere else in North America, in the United States most likely, or leave the business.”
The livelihood of thousands of individuals is at stake, said Skelly.
If the new model is implemented as outlined in the panel’s report, training centre operators across rural Ontario will have tough decisions to make as they consider reducing the number of staff they employ to care for and train horses.
“I’m really worried about these people,” said the local PC candidate. “Where are these people going to work?”
In its final report, the panel acknowledges that some industry workers will be displaced. It calls on Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to assist grooms, drivers, trainers and other specialized horse racing staff in the transition.
“The panel is satisfied that the current employment and retraining programs have the flexibility to meet the needs of the horse racing industry,” reads the report.
But Skelly is sceptical. “People can’t just transition into another field that easily and furthermore, there aren’t any other jobs,” she said.
The proposed Sustainable Horse Racing Model, founded on a number of principles including transparency and a renewed focus on the consumer, did stress the need for more accountability – something the industry has been lobbying for since the Slots at Racetracks program was implemented more than a decade ago.
“We’ve been asking for more accountability for years,” said Tropea.
Pleased with the panel’s report and recommendations, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough and Westdale, said, “We sought the advice of the industry. Together, we have the panel report, which reflects courageously and wisely, I believe, a way forward.
“We can embrace that vision and move this forward with a series of tracks that have already indicated a willingness based on the principles outlined in the report, to move forward as partners.”
As the government enters into discussions with operators to draft agreements to hold live racing at tracks across the province, Skelly wonders why the Liberals are so keen on pushing this new model through when it will have devastating effects on the industry, the local economy and the landscape of rural Ontario.
“I would hold off on anything,” she said, adding that she would like the Slots at Racetracks program extended until the government can devise a different model that would ensure the industry’s survival.
McMeekin, said Skelly, “should know more than anybody that this is just going to kill this industry.”
“It’s outrageous; it’s absolutely inexcusable,” she said. “These people, who are playing by the rules, who work really hard, are paying the price for a government that doesn’t know what it’s doing.”
Tropea agrees with Skelly’s suggestion.
“Let’s just take a pause on this. Let’s extend the current agreement for another year while we look and do a little more research on the financial impact it is going to have on the horse racing industry,” he said.
“The economic impact out on the people in the industry is huge.”