Ontario’s risky gamble with horse racing funds

By MPP Toby Barrett
A few weeks ago, my son Brett and I drove down to Lexington for the Opening Day at Keeneland. Kentucky is one state with a deep appreciation for Ontario’s horse racing industry – for example, there is a statue of Northern Dancer at the Kentucky Horse Park. And as we now know, I’ll Have Another, a Canadian horse, just won the Derby.

There are something like 963,500 horses in Canada – 212,500 in Ontario. Approximately 45,000 horses are active in the horse racing sector – 58 per cent in Ontario.

However recent action is putting the industry, and the lives of horses themselves, in jeopardy. This in spite of horse racing’s key role in our economy. The benefits are felt not only in Ontario, but in every part of Canada. Throughout rural communities, and among those who work with and care for horses, or supply products and services to the horse racing industry, the benefits trickle down.

It was 14 years ago, in 1998, the Mike Harris government approached racetracks with an agreement that if they built slot casinos they would keep 20 per cent of slot revenues to go back in to win purses, track promotions, and jobs. The shared contract agreement would see five per cent go to the area municipality and 75 per cent back to the government. The horse industry grew to become ‘world class’, with 60,000 people employed.

OLG slots at tracks generate over $1.1 billion in net revenues for Ontario. But on March 12, 2012, Mr. McGuinty cancelled this contract with tracks. Within two days government closed down racetrack slots, and now seeks to build casinos in urban areas – without a referendum. And just like that, thousands of families in communities across the province discovered they were being forced out of work by government.

Ontario Opposition Leader Tim Hudak, indicated that Dalton McGuinty is making the wrong decision. We believe the government should be focusing on creating jobs in Ontario, not putting more people out of work. As well, I feel this transfer of wealth from horsemen, farmers, veterinarians, breeders, trainers – the working people of the Sport of Kings – does nothing to decrease the size and cost of government. Ontario does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

We suggest government can duplicate what is done in the United States and other provinces – play a regulatory role in gaming. If a private company wants to bid on a license at an existing facility, or partner with a track to net more revenue – great. If existing sites can make a go of it, great – but give them a shot.

While government blames the Don Drummond report for the direction change, with regard to slots at tracks, he makes no mention of ending the revenue sharing-contract:
“Re-evaluate, on a value for money basis, the practice of providing a portion of net slot revenues to the horse racing and breeding industry and municipalities in order to substantially reduce and better target that support.”

Drummond does not call it a subsidy!

This gamble to close down slots – jeopardizing racetracks, the future of breeding horses, a long list of jobs, and billions in investment – to relocate big casinos in urban areas is risky. A risky gamble with the Sport of Kings will have far-reaching impacts across Ontario.