Normally, I don’t use this blog to highlight local politics. How relevant is it going to be, really, to a Gentle Reader in St. Vincent (I got two hits from the island a few days ago — hi guys!) or Croatia (where I seem to have a regular reader or two)?
Here’s why I’m making an exception. I make at least a percentage of my living, writing for racing magazines. I cover both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing (which is why I like the banner photo at the top of the blog — Standardbred racing under saddle, while only a novelty thing at present here in North America, strikes me as a fun hybrid that more-or-less sums up what I do. Neither fish nor fowl, in other words). I’ve even dabbled in Quarter Horse racing coverage, also a fringe activity here in Ontario, and Trottingbred pony racing in Bermuda (harness racing with the added benefit of cute ponies in lots of outrageous colours!). I’ve worked at the track, done lots of exercise riding, and most of my own mounts are refugees from the racing industry. All of which to say, I’m invested.
I’ll make the background to the following article as brief as I can manage. Some of it you can glean from the article itself: my home province of Ontario once had a sweetheart deal, a win-win-win, with the provincial government, in which its 17 racetracks accommodated rooms full of pinging, flashing, gurgling slot machines, in exchange for a percentage of the revenue, which they invested in purses for racing. In exchange for hosting another gambling option which essentially cannibalized its betting revenue, the racetracks got fatter purses, which attracted better quality horses, made it possible to offer world-class stakes races … and the local municipalities which hosted each racetrack also got a share of the cut for infrastructure, road improvement, whatever.
The Ontario government made out like a bandit on this deal, too, to the tune of $1.1 billion a year — about a 70% return on what it gave the racing industry. This was money which was available to be invested in health care, education, roads, parks, anything our little semi-socialist Canadian hearts desired.
The Slots At Racetracks program came about because most Ontario cities didn’t want slots parlours in their urban centres. Racetracks, which tend to be located on the city fringes or in rural locales, were ideal — and they already had the electricity, the parking lots, the washrooms (and the property taxes) that the body which governs gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corp (OLG), didn’t want to invest in. It was so wildly successful that in the 14 years since it was instituted, Ontario became one of the most envied racing jurisdictions in North America, particularly on the Standardbred side. The Ontario Sires Stakes program was the envy of the continent, stallions were flocking in to stand at stud here, we had the richest harness race offered anywhere (the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, for three-year-old pacing colts), and basically the whole thing was bad-ass, apart from the fact that actual interest in live racing, from a spectator’s point of view, has been waning for a while. Empty grandstands have been more the norm than the exception, and yes, that needed to be addressed … but in terms of the quality of the product, the contentment level of the horsepeople, and the health of the breeding industry, there was little to criticize about Ontario racing.
But we have a provincial government which has managed to bury itself in debt, with one snafu after another. Obscenely expensive power plants which get half-built and abandoned — check. An air ambulance service which purchases dizzyingly over-priced helicopters which don’t even allow EMTs enough room in which to perform CPR on the hapless passengers — check. An eHealth system which gives its CEO an outrageous salary and Prince-Rainier-style perks, and delivers practically nothing — check. I could go on. So long story short, they’re buried in scandal and up to their yin-yang in deficit, so they have to be seen to be cutting something. And horseracing … well, it doesn’t have very good optics anyway, right? It’s seedy and corrupt and they break down all the pretty horses, and no-one’s really going to miss it.
So without any consultation with the 55,000-odd people who make a living, either directly or indirectly, from racing in this province, nor with any of racing’s governing bodies, nor anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture who might have known squat about racing, they yanked the rug out from under the industry in February, 2012, by announcing they were cancelling the SARP program and instead would be investing in building huge, foreign-owned full-service casinos in urban locations across the province. Never mind that the existing five or six casinos in Ontario all lose money. It’s going to be a much better strategy, and we’re tired of “subsidizing” horseracing to the tune of $345 million a year which is taking money away from hospitals and all-day kindergarten for our wee ones.
It was a shameful degree of spin which elicited howls from the racing industry right from day one. Suddenly discretionary spending on slots machines, a portion of which went to racing, had become the Ontario government propping up our game. The word “subsidy” was gleefully seized upon by the mainstream media, and racing instantly became the bad guy, taking flu shots from the tender little arms of babes. And never mind that by hosting slots parlours, racing contributed billions to exactly those programs, far more than was invested.
Not to mention never mind the grooms who are in the barn by 6 a.m. every day, shovelling shit and hosing down horses and cleaning harness, and then packing up the trailer most afternoons and driving for hours in order to race into the late hours of the night … all for staggeringly less than minimum wage. Those are the real faces of racing, folks, not the Frank Stronachs of the world.
Anyway, you can imagine the fallout. Basically, without the SARP, Ontario racing was a dead duck. The fall yearling sales were a bloodbath. Stallions who had barely set up shop, packed up and left again. People started giving horses away right, left, and centre, or shipping the less productive ones for meat. Cases of neglect multiplied as people ran out of money to feed their horses. Drivers and jockeys headed south of the border where they could be better assured of making a living. And Windsor Raceway, once one of the most vibrant harness racing ovals in North America — and a place where I worked as a groom, back in the day — locked its doors and became a ghost town, with others soon to follow.
Fast forward almost a year and the Liberal premier who wreaked all this havoc has resigned and slunk away. The new leader of his party, Kathleen Wynne, has been in power a couple of weeks. As she had also taken on the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario horsemen hoped against hope that she had some interest in rural Ontario and in the entirely avoidable plight of racing industry participants.
So when there was an eleventh-hour announcement late this week, of an “invited media only” press conference to be held at one of Ontario’s racetracks on Friday, with the shiny new premier …. well.
Below is my report of the gulf between dreams and reality. The decent thing to do would have been to admit the whole plan had been ill-thought-out and a huge fucking mistake, but one can’t expect expressions of culpability from politicians, I guess.
I wrote this piece for the United States Trotting Association, for whom I crank out an irregular column on Canadian harness racing news. (Search my name on the site if you’d like to read some of them.) But the USTA preferred to go with the more diplomatically worded press release. Hence, this article has no home. Rather than have Friday be a completely wasted effort on my part, I present it here, for what it’s worth.
FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH: SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO
With the surprise announcement on Thursday afternoon (March 7, 2013) of a press conference to be held the following day at Elora, Ontario’s Grand River Raceway, with new provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, the hearts of Ontario horsemen got an unexpected jolt.
Within hours, the rumour mill was hinting that perhaps the ruling Liberals had finally crunched the numbers, and realized that their decision, a year ago, to summarily cancel the wildly successful Slots At Racetracks program (SARP) which had pumped $345 million per year into the racing industry and $1.1 billion into provincial coffers, had been … well, stupid.
Local news outlets reported that SARP was about to be restored, ending 12 months of anxiety, uncertainty, and anger for some 55,000 people whose livelihoods hung in the balance.
Alas, wishful thinking couldn’t make it so. The news delivered from the well-lit podium on the second floor of the Grand River grandstand, did almost nothing to dispel that uncertainty.
Premier Wynne, who took over the Liberal leadership from the retreating Dalton McGuinty a month ago, also took on the portfolio of the Minister of Agriculture … so the concerns of rural Ontario have clearly been on her mind to some degree.
But she continues to buy into the essential fallacy created by her predecessor, and perpetuated by the three-member “Transition Board” appointed to assess the state of Ontario horseracing after the decision had been made to pull the plug, that racing was not sustainable in this province as it stood, that it was in need of shrinkage, and that the revenue-sharing agreement which was carved out 14 years ago to compensate racetracks for hosting slots parlours, was a “subsidy”.
In fact, Ontario stood until a year ago as one of the most successful racing jurisdictions in North America, if not the most successful. With an exemplary Sires Stakes program and 17 tracks, many of which operated year-round, Ontario was a racing destination that was the envy of many.
The Liberals have apparently never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And a year later, the damage has been done.
Wynne’s speech on Friday, March 8 to the media offered little more than a photo op of her cuddling with two ‘ambassador’ horses from the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society. In terms of substance, there was little. She assured her audience that Ontario racing will survive, but will have to become smaller, delivered some platitudes about how rental agreements (to keep the doors of the existing slots parlours open) have been reached with most of the surviving 14 tracks, and that “transition agreements” had been reached with five of them – six, if you count Woodbine and Mohawk as separate ovals (they are both owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group).
Some of the other Ontario racetracks are still in negotiations, with Rideau Carleton (in Ottawa) and the now-shuttered Windsor Raceway refusing to play ball.
Wynne steadfastly refused to talk money, deflecting repeatedly when asked by the media whether the transitional funding – now truly a government subsidy – would approach previous levels provided by the revenue-sharing agreement. And the timeframe of three years she provided for these transitional agreements, does nothing for Ontario breeders, who work on a five-year cycle and have been perhaps the hardest hit of all the industry segments.
“We are continuing to work with the transition panel, to integrate racing with the provincial gaming strategy,” she reiterated, to the dismay of most of the racing media who understand that the ill-informed transition panel is a big part of the problem.
“And we want to ensure racetracks have access to revenues from new gaming applications.
“We want to make sure that there aren’t enormous unintended consequences as the industry evolves,” she concluded.
While it’s of some small comfort that the government now recognizes there might be consequences, one can’t help but feel as if they pulled the plug and only now are making a half-hearted effort to save the baby who is circling the drain with the bathwater. The consequences are here, unintended or not, and Friday’s non-announcement, unfortunately, will do virtually nothing to change that.