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Tories, NDP, Liberals rolling dice on horse racing plans

 By Kevin Werner, News Staff

Hamilton Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin is calling Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s proposal to reinstate the Slots at Racetrack Program as “irresponsible” and giving some people within the horse industry false hope.

“I don’t think we want to go back,” said McMeekin. “(Hudak’s plan) is not responsible. The PCs are preaching free market, yet they are helping to subsidize the horse racing industry,” said McMeekin. “They call it corporate welfare.”

Huda, in an interview with Hamilton Community News, said a Tory government would resurrect the SARP program that provided about $345 million to the government annually during its 14 years in existence. The program was created under the former Mike Harris Tory government.

“We would reestablish the Slots at Racetrack Program,” said Hudak. “We are pro jobs.”

Hudak did say the program would be more efficient and better managed than under the Liberals.

Donna Skelly, the Tory candidate for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, said in a recent interview, eliminating the SARP program has “devastated” the horse racing community in the Flamborough area. She said farmers, and people who were depended upon on the industry at Flamboro Downs are now in financial straights, unemployed or waiting to lose their homes.

“It’s just terrible what happened,” she said. “It’s heart breaking.”

New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath in a campaign stop in St. Catharines and Fort Erie May 28 announced the party would also reinstate the SARP program “on a permanent” basis that would save about 1,000 jobs in Niagara.

The Liberals scrapped the program a couple of years ago with the government calling it a subsidy to the horse racing industry. The former arrangement allowed slot machines into 18 racetracks. About 10 per cent of the revenues went to the track, 10 per cent to the people in the horse industry, 5 per cent to the host municipality and 75 per cent went to the province.

McMeekin appointed a panel, composed of Elmer Buchanan, John Wilkinson and John Snobelen, to review the agreement, and recommended the SARP program needed to be ended because it was unsustainable.

Still, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk last month criticized the Liberals and OLG for how they cancelled the program.

“OLG developed its modernization plan without sufficiently consulting such stakeholders as municipalities and the horse-racing industry,” she wrote.

The Liberals did establish a new Horse Racing Partnership Plan that took effect April 1 and involves 16 race tracks across the province. The 5-year-plan includes $500 million, as well as increasing the purses and race dates at tracks, enhanced support for horse breeders and integrated horse racing into the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporate. Ontario is the fourth largest horse racing jurisdiction in North America, said McMeekin.

Those racetracks that have agreements include Georgian Downs and Flamboro Downs, both owned by the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, Woodbine, Mohawk, Western Fair, Grand River, Clinton and Hanover. There will be about 1,000 races at the 16 racetracks this season, with about 145 of them at Flamboro Downs.

McMeekin said he managed to incorporate in the agreement that if a municipality wants a casino, it has to be located where a racetrack is sited.

“I insisted on that and told (Hamilton council) about that for Flamboro Downs,” said McMeekin. “I’m concerned about what will happen to those people who have a real personal investment in the horse racing industry.”

Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry, has applauded McMeekin for the plan, saying “we were very fortunate to have a friend in Ted.”

McMeekin acknowledged that “not everybody is happy” with the new plan the Liberals have presented. But it’s one that is “sustainable.”

McMeekin said if the subsidy continued it was only inevitable that the entire horse racing industry would eventually collapse.

“We have taken a measured step to save the industry,” he said. “We wanted to put the industry in a position where it could stand on its own four feet.”

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