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Subdue the OLG monster: horse racing hall of famer

Editor’s Note: At the request of local residents and with the permission of standardbredcanada.ca, the Review has opted to publish an edited version of 2011 Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee and long-time horseman Robert Burgess’s letter to the seven provincial Liberal leadership candidates. The full version is available here.

We are finally entering the homestretch in our epic eight-month battle with a self-dealing OLG determined, at all costs, to completely destroy Ontario racing as we have known it.

Important changes in our relationship with government may be occurring. At this time, one can seriously take the position that a recovery for Ontario racing is still possible, despite the well intentioned, but totally unsuccessful efforts, of the horse racing transition panel, appointed to fix something that was never broken in the first place.

However, many signs now point to the survival and continuation of the widely respected Ontario Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP), an equitable and fair revenue-sharing program that has served Ontario taxpayers and the racing industry so well and faithfully since 1998.

The new Leader can immediately extend the SARP and commission a new and impartial study. This extension by the new Leader will also, at the same time, save Ontario’s horse breeding farms from absolute and totally undeserved ruination.

Less urgent, but nevertheless important, are several other positive signs of a possible recovery for Ontario’s beleaguered horsemen and breeders. I have set out below several important statements supporting the Ontario horse industry, as follows:

On Dec. 11, 2012 Sue Leslie of Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA) announced “that OHRIA supports the Ontario Progressive Conservative party’s push to incorporate the provincial horse racing and breeding sector in any future gaming plans.” OHRIA is asking the provincial government to defer the OLG’s current modernization strategy until consultations that involve all sectors of Ontario’s gaming industry, including horse racing, can be integrated into OLG’s plans and extend the SARP beyond March 31, 2013 to allow the 2013 racing season to get underway while negotiations continue.”

We understand that Ms. Leslie, on behalf of OHRIA, has received a substantially similar commitment from Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP party, to incorporate the provincial horse racing and breeding sector into any future gaming plans.

With respect to the frantic rush into 29 new casinos, Ms. Horwath was very candid on Ottawa Citizen Live stating, “Stop the current OLG program, allow municipalities to have referenda if they want and tie (them) to the next city election 2014? What’s the hurry?”

Tim Hudak, the leader of the PC party, has argued correctly that the OLG vision of new casinos is not a panacea to cure overspending and waste by the current or future government. Mr. Hudak also wants the OLG out of the business of operating slot parlours at racetracks and wants the racetrack owners to own and operate these facilities on an individual basis.

As a corollary of this policy, it goes without saying that to be profitable and competitive with standardbred and thoroughbred tracks south of the border, these facilities will need to retain the 10 per cent purse levy for horsemen and be so mandated by government in order to keep purse levels competitive and maintain horse supply.

Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath, by their public pronouncements, have consistently and with some passion supported racing and its preservation in Ontario as we know it. Similarly, almost all of the Liberal leadership candidates are calling for a review of the OLG’s policies and a meaningful extension of the SARP. That means that after any subsequent provincial election, where the Liberals do not win an absolute majority, the racing industry will have the necessary votes at Queen’s Park to be able to stop the train and get an extension and a proper review of the SARP revenue sharing agreement.

There is now ample precedent for very successful revenue sharing agreements between racing and slots in neighbouring competing jurisdictions. For example, in New York State nine racinos (slots with racing) are presently operating successfully between Buffalo on the west and New York City to the east.

The OLG should be ordered by the government to include, in its current request for proposals, details requiring applicants wishing to operate or purchase any of Ontario’s slot operations (only those where racing facilities now exist) to show how they would operate and continue to fund racing during the term of the contract they are proposing to win. This is absolutely necessary for racing’s survival.

Since 1998, the racino model in Ontario has been extremely successful, generating over $1 billion dollars in 2012 for the government through its agreements with 17 tracks. In contrast, the OLG’s five stand-alone slots and casinos that the corporation operates have returned virtually nothing to government year after year and represent a burden to taxpayers.

Perhaps the OLG should consider building racetracks at their slots-only facilities so that they can become revenue producers for the Ontario taxpayer like at Grand River Raceway, which contributed over $44 million to the provincial government in 2012.

Ontario’s racing’s future has already been imperilled by the OLG’s gaming modernization plan that completely decimated the 2012 Ontario breeding season and now threatens the 2013 breeding season which starts on Feb. 15. With our horse supply ruined and our breeders in serious financial danger, racing cannot survive.

The only way to subdue the OLG monster is for all horsemen, breeders, racetracks, affected municipalities, owners and trades people to stand together and fight to the bitter end as we approach the Liberal leadership race on January 26 and the end of the SARP on March 31.

It is inconceivable that an honourable and fair new Liberal leader would walk away from revenues exceeding $1 billion dollars in 2013. The new leader can just as easily extend the SARP and commission a new and impartial study.

To do otherwise would be fiscally irresponsible.

Robert B. Burgess, Q.C.

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