Thousands of horses and 60,000 jobs are at risk

By MPP Toby Barrett

Imagine if 7,500 to 13,000 horses had to be put down. As sickening as the thought is, the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel interim report has recommended provision be made for the humane dispatch and disposal of that many horses if nothing changes to assist the horse racing industry.

The sad reality of the impact of government’s mismanagement was apparently too much for the final report, as its release late last month saw the number of horses to be euthanized edited out. As explanation, the final version included an introductory proviso that some sensitive information was removed pending negotiations with the industry. Industry sources tell me the original estimate was based on the collapse of horse racing in Ontario and now there is a belief it can survive on a reduced scale. But, there will be horses that won’t survive.

Horses are a part of Ontario’s heritage. For example, our area was represented at the recent London Olympics by a locally-bred thoroughbred – Exponential. But after 130 years, the industry is in trouble. In 1998, the government of the day – a government I was part of – created the Slots at Racetracks Programs (SARP), a revenue-sharing partnership between the province, municipalities and the horse racing business.

The slots money provided sustainable growth and put Ontario purses in the lead in North America. Not only was the growth in the industry seen on tracks and farms, it had a ripple effect throughout rural Ontario. That effect is now moving in the opposite direction, giving way to a problem the government itself has created.

Nine months after the Ontario government announced they were pulling the rug out from under the horse-racing industry the panel report is only now starting to provide details as to how the industry will survive.

The report follows the McGuinty government’s spring announcement bringing an end to SARP. At the same time, the government proposed moving more gambling to casinos. People in those areas targeted for a casino will not have a say if a new facility is to be located there.

Instead of making rushed announcements risking upwards of 60,000 jobs and the lives of thousands of horses throughout Ontario, the government would’ve been wise to work with industry and ensure a proper long-term plan. The horse breeding program works months ahead – a horse’s gestation period is 11 months – and a three-year transition period could have eased the situation.

While the panel has agreed with the decision to end SARP, saying the program’s “no strings attached” funding is not the solution, they have cautioned government’s $50 million in transition funding over three years “is insufficient to build a bridge to sustainability” and public funding is needed to stabilize the industry.

Since horse racing generates jobs, exports and tax revenue, the panel report recommends the province pursue a strategy that includes horse racing as a key component. This government should focus on creating jobs, not destroying them – why the big push to transfer wealth from horsemen, farmers, breeders, trainers and veterinarians?

The clock is ticking. The government needs to make a decision and act quickly. If not, horses and horse people will disappear and take their economic activity with them.