Racing toward an uncertain future

Community Sep 01, 2011 Flamborough Review

From horse and buggy contests to a high stakes sport, harness racing has become an economic driving force for Ontario and its agricultural sector. For decades, the sport enjoyed a monopoly in the gambling marketplace, but a three-part exclusive series by Metroland West reporters Catherine O'Hara and Christina Commisso reveals that the $2.6-billion industry that employs 65,000 Ontarians is under threat.

There wasn't a drop of liquor in Nassagaweya when the charge to establish a racetrack began in the '50s. A few kilometres away, a Flamborough farmer defaulted on his rural property. And so began the journeys of two visionaries who took a gamble on creating a mecca for harness racing in the region.

• • •

Wolf Von Richtoven – a descendant of First World War flying ace Manfred Von Richtoven, (the "Red Baron") – and his group of investors saw a 400-acre swath of land in Campbellville as the perfect location to build a horse racing facility in southern Ontario. Situated near more than half a dozen major cities, the rural hamlet would allow horse racing enthusiasts from near and far to place their bets at the track. But prohibition obstructed their path.

"We went to the jockey club. They said they'd be interested, but we need booze first," said Bert Walton, a life-long Nassagaweya resident.

Walton, now 87, played a lead role in garnering support from the local constituency to lift the ban on alcohol – a decision that, in 1961, received overwhelming support and, to this day, remains the referendum with the highest affirmative votes in the history of the province.

Plans to construct Mohawk Racetrack were rapidly put into motion. On April 26, 1963 the $3.5-million facility, which boasted barns for 828 horses, was opened to the public. The event drew a crowd of nearly 4,500 people.

• • •

OFF TRACK PART 2: Driving through the red tape

• • •

The parcel of agricultural land, nestled in Flamborough, was at a standstill, creating no revenues for the bankrupt farmer. Charles Juravinski saw the pastures as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create a haven for standardbred racing in the community.

"I suggested to anybody who wanted to listen at the time that this area would become the Kentucky of the horse racing industry," said Juravinski.

His vision, however, was received with skepticism. Detractors attempted to thwart the Greensville man's plans and questioned the facility's eventual success, as little development existed along Hwy. 5, east of Waterdown into Toronto.

"I can remember thinking to myself, this business can't do anything but succeed because people are going to move into this area and somehow, we are going to get them to Flamboro Downs," recalled Juravinski of the facility he built in 1975.

Set on more than 200 acres, Flamboro Downs was an entertainment venue that attracted 3,300 patrons daily at its peak.

• • •

OFF TRACK PART 3: Harness racing needs 'new blood'

• • •

The successes of horse racing at Mohawk Racetrack didn't occur overnight.

"It wasn't that great to begin with, but we gradually kept building and building," said Walton, while finishing up dessert at Mohawk's newly-renovated seven-tier dining room that boasts a panoramic view of the 7/8 mile-long track below. Flat screen TVs with live results and stats and betting odds adorn each dining table – where patrons can make use of wireless wagering devices – Walton is reminded of how far the rural track has come.

The same rings true at Flamboro Downs, where new initiatives and high stake races, including Confederation Cup, were developed.

Prior to 1985, much of Ontario's legalized gambling was centered on horse racing. A report commissioned by the Ontario government in June 2008 notes that the horse racing industry "held a virtual monopoly on legalized gambling."

The report, headed up by former Ontario Racing Commission chair Stanley Sadinsky, described the monopoly as "both a blessing and a curse."

With limited avenues to test one's luck, the horse racing industry didn't have to compete for the legal gambler's dollar. This "near exclusivity," however, resulted in missed opportunities to promote and market the sport and appeal to new patrons.

As the leisure and entertainment industry underwent sweeping changes in the early 1990s, it became essential for the horse racing industry to set itself apart from other venues that promised families a fun and exciting night out. The horsemen were not only competing for the betting buck, they were vying for an audience.

"Prior to 1994, the industry was in a state of serious decline, especially the racetracks," reads Sadinsky's report. "It had largely failed to attract new horse owners and to reach out to a broader audience that had become accustomed to demanding and receiving exciting entertainment experiences."

Still, the horse racing industry maintained its importance across the province by creating jobs and helping to sustain the agricultural industry.

"The horse racing industry has been remarkably resilient," said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA), an agency that represents the interests of horse people provincially.

When the Slots at Racetracks program was rolled out in 1998, the industry's transformation was blanketed with optimism. Investments were made that significantly increased the footprint of the industry. People capitalized on the opportunity to invest in the industry, own horses and win races, as the purses swelled thanks to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's (OLG) infusion of funds.

People established businesses in and around the racetracks to better serve the needs of the horse people, explained Geoff Maltby, an OHHA director.

"At one time 15 years ago, pre-slot era, there was one place within an hour of Milton to buy horseshoes. Now there are three places," he said. "In any given part of the industry, there's more because there is more money and it has been trickling down."

The Slots at Racetracks model, implemented at 17 facilities across Ontario, subsidizes live racing by affording 20 per cent of the slot facility's revenues to the racetracks. Of its contribution, 10 per cent of the OLG revenue creates the purse pool, while the remaining 10 per cent is allocated to the owner of the facility to further enhance and promote live racing.

But the number of opportunities to win the lucrative purses has been on a steady decline for years. Great Canadian Gaming, the current owner of Flamboro Downs, has successfully applied to the Ontario Racing Commission for reductions in the number of live race days. The company also received approval in 2006 to close the backstretch, barns and grooms' quarters surrounding the half-mile track. These changes, noted Tropea, had a direct impact on the local horsemen – and their pocketbooks.

While some believe the Slots at Racetracks program saved the horse racing industry, others hotly disagree.

"The less opportunities you have to race, the less opportunities you have to earn revenue," said the OHHA's general manager.

"When the slots first came around, everyone said slots saved the industry," said Maltby. "Well no, slots were a Band-Aid."

Racing toward an uncertain future

Community Sep 01, 2011 Flamborough Review

From horse and buggy contests to a high stakes sport, harness racing has become an economic driving force for Ontario and its agricultural sector. For decades, the sport enjoyed a monopoly in the gambling marketplace, but a three-part exclusive series by Metroland West reporters Catherine O'Hara and Christina Commisso reveals that the $2.6-billion industry that employs 65,000 Ontarians is under threat.

There wasn't a drop of liquor in Nassagaweya when the charge to establish a racetrack began in the '50s. A few kilometres away, a Flamborough farmer defaulted on his rural property. And so began the journeys of two visionaries who took a gamble on creating a mecca for harness racing in the region.

• • •

Wolf Von Richtoven – a descendant of First World War flying ace Manfred Von Richtoven, (the "Red Baron") – and his group of investors saw a 400-acre swath of land in Campbellville as the perfect location to build a horse racing facility in southern Ontario. Situated near more than half a dozen major cities, the rural hamlet would allow horse racing enthusiasts from near and far to place their bets at the track. But prohibition obstructed their path.

"We went to the jockey club. They said they'd be interested, but we need booze first," said Bert Walton, a life-long Nassagaweya resident.

Walton, now 87, played a lead role in garnering support from the local constituency to lift the ban on alcohol – a decision that, in 1961, received overwhelming support and, to this day, remains the referendum with the highest affirmative votes in the history of the province.

Plans to construct Mohawk Racetrack were rapidly put into motion. On April 26, 1963 the $3.5-million facility, which boasted barns for 828 horses, was opened to the public. The event drew a crowd of nearly 4,500 people.

• • •

OFF TRACK PART 2: Driving through the red tape

• • •

The parcel of agricultural land, nestled in Flamborough, was at a standstill, creating no revenues for the bankrupt farmer. Charles Juravinski saw the pastures as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create a haven for standardbred racing in the community.

"I suggested to anybody who wanted to listen at the time that this area would become the Kentucky of the horse racing industry," said Juravinski.

His vision, however, was received with skepticism. Detractors attempted to thwart the Greensville man's plans and questioned the facility's eventual success, as little development existed along Hwy. 5, east of Waterdown into Toronto.

"I can remember thinking to myself, this business can't do anything but succeed because people are going to move into this area and somehow, we are going to get them to Flamboro Downs," recalled Juravinski of the facility he built in 1975.

Set on more than 200 acres, Flamboro Downs was an entertainment venue that attracted 3,300 patrons daily at its peak.

• • •

OFF TRACK PART 3: Harness racing needs 'new blood'

• • •

The successes of horse racing at Mohawk Racetrack didn't occur overnight.

"It wasn't that great to begin with, but we gradually kept building and building," said Walton, while finishing up dessert at Mohawk's newly-renovated seven-tier dining room that boasts a panoramic view of the 7/8 mile-long track below. Flat screen TVs with live results and stats and betting odds adorn each dining table – where patrons can make use of wireless wagering devices – Walton is reminded of how far the rural track has come.

The same rings true at Flamboro Downs, where new initiatives and high stake races, including Confederation Cup, were developed.

Prior to 1985, much of Ontario's legalized gambling was centered on horse racing. A report commissioned by the Ontario government in June 2008 notes that the horse racing industry "held a virtual monopoly on legalized gambling."

The report, headed up by former Ontario Racing Commission chair Stanley Sadinsky, described the monopoly as "both a blessing and a curse."

With limited avenues to test one's luck, the horse racing industry didn't have to compete for the legal gambler's dollar. This "near exclusivity," however, resulted in missed opportunities to promote and market the sport and appeal to new patrons.

As the leisure and entertainment industry underwent sweeping changes in the early 1990s, it became essential for the horse racing industry to set itself apart from other venues that promised families a fun and exciting night out. The horsemen were not only competing for the betting buck, they were vying for an audience.

"Prior to 1994, the industry was in a state of serious decline, especially the racetracks," reads Sadinsky's report. "It had largely failed to attract new horse owners and to reach out to a broader audience that had become accustomed to demanding and receiving exciting entertainment experiences."

Still, the horse racing industry maintained its importance across the province by creating jobs and helping to sustain the agricultural industry.

"The horse racing industry has been remarkably resilient," said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA), an agency that represents the interests of horse people provincially.

When the Slots at Racetracks program was rolled out in 1998, the industry's transformation was blanketed with optimism. Investments were made that significantly increased the footprint of the industry. People capitalized on the opportunity to invest in the industry, own horses and win races, as the purses swelled thanks to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's (OLG) infusion of funds.

People established businesses in and around the racetracks to better serve the needs of the horse people, explained Geoff Maltby, an OHHA director.

"At one time 15 years ago, pre-slot era, there was one place within an hour of Milton to buy horseshoes. Now there are three places," he said. "In any given part of the industry, there's more because there is more money and it has been trickling down."

The Slots at Racetracks model, implemented at 17 facilities across Ontario, subsidizes live racing by affording 20 per cent of the slot facility's revenues to the racetracks. Of its contribution, 10 per cent of the OLG revenue creates the purse pool, while the remaining 10 per cent is allocated to the owner of the facility to further enhance and promote live racing.

But the number of opportunities to win the lucrative purses has been on a steady decline for years. Great Canadian Gaming, the current owner of Flamboro Downs, has successfully applied to the Ontario Racing Commission for reductions in the number of live race days. The company also received approval in 2006 to close the backstretch, barns and grooms' quarters surrounding the half-mile track. These changes, noted Tropea, had a direct impact on the local horsemen – and their pocketbooks.

While some believe the Slots at Racetracks program saved the horse racing industry, others hotly disagree.

"The less opportunities you have to race, the less opportunities you have to earn revenue," said the OHHA's general manager.

"When the slots first came around, everyone said slots saved the industry," said Maltby. "Well no, slots were a Band-Aid."

Racing toward an uncertain future

Community Sep 01, 2011 Flamborough Review

From horse and buggy contests to a high stakes sport, harness racing has become an economic driving force for Ontario and its agricultural sector. For decades, the sport enjoyed a monopoly in the gambling marketplace, but a three-part exclusive series by Metroland West reporters Catherine O'Hara and Christina Commisso reveals that the $2.6-billion industry that employs 65,000 Ontarians is under threat.

There wasn't a drop of liquor in Nassagaweya when the charge to establish a racetrack began in the '50s. A few kilometres away, a Flamborough farmer defaulted on his rural property. And so began the journeys of two visionaries who took a gamble on creating a mecca for harness racing in the region.

• • •

Wolf Von Richtoven – a descendant of First World War flying ace Manfred Von Richtoven, (the "Red Baron") – and his group of investors saw a 400-acre swath of land in Campbellville as the perfect location to build a horse racing facility in southern Ontario. Situated near more than half a dozen major cities, the rural hamlet would allow horse racing enthusiasts from near and far to place their bets at the track. But prohibition obstructed their path.

"We went to the jockey club. They said they'd be interested, but we need booze first," said Bert Walton, a life-long Nassagaweya resident.

Walton, now 87, played a lead role in garnering support from the local constituency to lift the ban on alcohol – a decision that, in 1961, received overwhelming support and, to this day, remains the referendum with the highest affirmative votes in the history of the province.

Plans to construct Mohawk Racetrack were rapidly put into motion. On April 26, 1963 the $3.5-million facility, which boasted barns for 828 horses, was opened to the public. The event drew a crowd of nearly 4,500 people.

• • •

OFF TRACK PART 2: Driving through the red tape

• • •

The parcel of agricultural land, nestled in Flamborough, was at a standstill, creating no revenues for the bankrupt farmer. Charles Juravinski saw the pastures as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create a haven for standardbred racing in the community.

"I suggested to anybody who wanted to listen at the time that this area would become the Kentucky of the horse racing industry," said Juravinski.

His vision, however, was received with skepticism. Detractors attempted to thwart the Greensville man's plans and questioned the facility's eventual success, as little development existed along Hwy. 5, east of Waterdown into Toronto.

"I can remember thinking to myself, this business can't do anything but succeed because people are going to move into this area and somehow, we are going to get them to Flamboro Downs," recalled Juravinski of the facility he built in 1975.

Set on more than 200 acres, Flamboro Downs was an entertainment venue that attracted 3,300 patrons daily at its peak.

• • •

OFF TRACK PART 3: Harness racing needs 'new blood'

• • •

The successes of horse racing at Mohawk Racetrack didn't occur overnight.

"It wasn't that great to begin with, but we gradually kept building and building," said Walton, while finishing up dessert at Mohawk's newly-renovated seven-tier dining room that boasts a panoramic view of the 7/8 mile-long track below. Flat screen TVs with live results and stats and betting odds adorn each dining table – where patrons can make use of wireless wagering devices – Walton is reminded of how far the rural track has come.

The same rings true at Flamboro Downs, where new initiatives and high stake races, including Confederation Cup, were developed.

Prior to 1985, much of Ontario's legalized gambling was centered on horse racing. A report commissioned by the Ontario government in June 2008 notes that the horse racing industry "held a virtual monopoly on legalized gambling."

The report, headed up by former Ontario Racing Commission chair Stanley Sadinsky, described the monopoly as "both a blessing and a curse."

With limited avenues to test one's luck, the horse racing industry didn't have to compete for the legal gambler's dollar. This "near exclusivity," however, resulted in missed opportunities to promote and market the sport and appeal to new patrons.

As the leisure and entertainment industry underwent sweeping changes in the early 1990s, it became essential for the horse racing industry to set itself apart from other venues that promised families a fun and exciting night out. The horsemen were not only competing for the betting buck, they were vying for an audience.

"Prior to 1994, the industry was in a state of serious decline, especially the racetracks," reads Sadinsky's report. "It had largely failed to attract new horse owners and to reach out to a broader audience that had become accustomed to demanding and receiving exciting entertainment experiences."

Still, the horse racing industry maintained its importance across the province by creating jobs and helping to sustain the agricultural industry.

"The horse racing industry has been remarkably resilient," said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA), an agency that represents the interests of horse people provincially.

When the Slots at Racetracks program was rolled out in 1998, the industry's transformation was blanketed with optimism. Investments were made that significantly increased the footprint of the industry. People capitalized on the opportunity to invest in the industry, own horses and win races, as the purses swelled thanks to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's (OLG) infusion of funds.

People established businesses in and around the racetracks to better serve the needs of the horse people, explained Geoff Maltby, an OHHA director.

"At one time 15 years ago, pre-slot era, there was one place within an hour of Milton to buy horseshoes. Now there are three places," he said. "In any given part of the industry, there's more because there is more money and it has been trickling down."

The Slots at Racetracks model, implemented at 17 facilities across Ontario, subsidizes live racing by affording 20 per cent of the slot facility's revenues to the racetracks. Of its contribution, 10 per cent of the OLG revenue creates the purse pool, while the remaining 10 per cent is allocated to the owner of the facility to further enhance and promote live racing.

But the number of opportunities to win the lucrative purses has been on a steady decline for years. Great Canadian Gaming, the current owner of Flamboro Downs, has successfully applied to the Ontario Racing Commission for reductions in the number of live race days. The company also received approval in 2006 to close the backstretch, barns and grooms' quarters surrounding the half-mile track. These changes, noted Tropea, had a direct impact on the local horsemen – and their pocketbooks.

While some believe the Slots at Racetracks program saved the horse racing industry, others hotly disagree.

"The less opportunities you have to race, the less opportunities you have to earn revenue," said the OHHA's general manager.

"When the slots first came around, everyone said slots saved the industry," said Maltby. "Well no, slots were a Band-Aid."