By Kevin Werner, News Staff
Ontario’s horse racing industry will need to cut back on the number of race dates, while boosting the amount of purses by tapping into the industry’s pari-mutuel wagering if it wants to survive, a panel of experts has concluded.
“I’m pretty excited about the recommendations,” said Agricultural Minister Ted McMeekin. “I think it’s going to work. I’m seeing a bright future ahead.”
The Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel, created by McMeekin early this spring, released its 36-page final report Oct. 30 recommending to keep the horse racing industry financially sustainable, more public funding is needed over a three-year period “to build an industry on a foundation of sound public policy,” which means creating a different financial model by using other sources of income.
Restructuring the industry will include cutting the number of race days from 1,154 in 2011 to about 800, raising pursues, and having more full fields in each race. In 2011, a race had on average about 10 horses.
“Having four horses racing for three pursues doesn’t work,” said McMeekin. “Having eight or 10 horses for a full pursue makes for a stronger industry.”
The new model will “make the industry more customer driven” by basing all the purses on the industry’s share of pari-mutuel waging.
Racetracks, said the panel, composed of Elmer Buchanan, John Snobelen, and John Wilkinson, will need continued public funding. McMeekin has already stated the proposed $50 million transition fund to tie racetracks over for the next three years is insufficient, and that more funding is needed. In its Aug. 17 interim report, the panel called the Slots at Racetrack Program (SARP), introduced by the former Progressive Conservative government, bad public policy that shouldn’t be continued.
The Liberals are ending the program March 31, 2013, saving about $345 million. So far three of the 17 racetracks, includingFort Erie, have closed.
“Any public funding of track costs must be subject to the agreement of track operators to maintain or enhance the pari-mutuel handle and invest any earnings back into the industry,” stated the panel’s report.
The panel agreed not to release how much public funding will be needed to prop up the racetracks because “it would not be in the public interest today.” McMeekin agreed with the recommendation to keep silent on how much money is needed to support racetracks until negotiations with non-profit racetracks, such as Woodbine and Ajax, and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation is completed. It is unknown how long the negotiations will take.
“There is no successful racetracks any where without any help from public funding,” he said. “I recognize $50 million is not enough. We have to set the table for the discussions.”
“We advise that this information should be withheld until such time as the government and the industry have concluded their negotiations,” stated the panel.
It is unclear if for-profit racetracks, such as Flamboro Downs, will be included in this new horse-racing model, although McMeekin said they are welcome to accept the requirements in any new agreement to receive public funding.
“For profit tracks can step up if they are prepared to meet the public test,” he said. “Some may want to move to casino status.”
The negotiations include the OLG which will look at working out leasing agreements with racetracks at gaming facilities, allowing them to use the pari-mutuel money for purses.
About 60 per cent of the purses for horse racing come from SARP, a model that the government says is unsustainable. Under this new scenario, most of the money for the purses will come from the pari-mutuel wagering.
Other recommendations from the panel include allowing the horse racing industry to introduce gaming products such as a lottery, sports books, and a new pari-mutuel, and moving the industry from the provincial government’s finance ministry to agriculture.