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Eric Riehl, MWMG

Eric Riehl, MWMG

Catherine O'Hara, Review reporter

My View: Don’t forsake Flamboro Downs

Big news items have captured quite a few headlines in the Review in recent weeks. The plight of the horse racing industry is one; a possible Hamilton casino is another.

While one issue is just as significant as the other, I believe it’s important to note that these two are intricately connected. And one cannot – and should not – make a decision without considering the impacts on the other.

Historically, the high-stakes sport of horse racing in Ontario enjoyed much success as it was the only facility where individuals could test their odds. When the province wanted to establish slot parlours to boost its coffers, it looked to racetracks as viable locations for the new venture. Seemingly, it was a perfect fit as racetracks already attracted individuals who were willing to place a bet or two. But with the slots shacking up with tracks, horse racing found itself in direct competition for the betting dollar.

An agreement was formed between the track owners and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) that would see 20 per cent of slot revenues bolster the horse racing industry. Horsemen and women used that money to fund purse pools, upgrade racing facilities and promote the sport of live racing.

Fast-forward a decade or so later and you’ll find the horse racing industry in a tailspin. That’s because the Ontario Liberal government decided to cancel the long-standing profit-sharing agreement, the Slots at Racetracks Program, effective March 31. The Grits also gave the OLG the go-ahead to modernize gaming across the province. The modernization plan includes building new casinos in different zones. One could be coming to a town near you.

Hamilton is currently considering whether it wants to play host to a casino. Already, it receives roughly $4.5 million in revenues from the OLG for hosting the Slots at Flamboro Downs. Housing a new casino within its boundaries could mean more money for a cash-strapped city in need of a big financial boost to fund social service programs, upgrade infrastructure and lower taxes.

This decision carries a lot of weight and shouldn’t be taken lightly. While a new casino complex located in Hamilton proper could potentially boost tourism and the local economy, yanking it away from Flamborough would have devastating effects on the city’s agriculture – namely horse racing.

There’s little chance a company, whether for- or not-for-profit, will be willing to take on the risk of operating a stand-alone facility dedicated to horse racing. However, the racetrack’s survival is increased if the city agrees to host a casino only at the Flamboro Downs site. The owner/operator of the new site could not only enter into an agreement with the OLG to house slots and tables, but also offer its guests the opportunity to place a bet or two on horse racing – a nearly impossible option if a new facility is located downtown.

Council already said it supported Flamboro Downs, but with downtown casino proposals coming forward, politicians need to stick to their guns, stick with the Flamborough location.

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