by BETTER FARMING STAFF
As the provincial Liberals stand firm in their decision to wind down a longstanding slots partnership with Ontario’s racetracks, the local horse industry is already beginning to feel the effects of a market contraction.
“We’re seeing the immediate impact in the withdrawal of bookings - bookings being contracts to our 10 breeding stallions - for breeding in 2012,” says Ann Straatman, who owns Seelster Farms with her sister Karen Savacho and cousin Tina-Marie Howard. With 10 breeding stallions and 90 broodmares, the Lucan, Middlesex County standardbred breeding operation is Ontario’s largest. By late March the facility had received 31 breeding cancellations.
“That’s significant for this time of year, especially,” Straatman says. Those are only the people who have bothered to inform her of their cancellation. “There will be at least that many who simply won’t show up for breeding during the season.”
At Putnam Training Centre, located a few minutes drive east of London, two resident trainers have already been dealing with an uncertain future: The training centre was taken over by the Royal Bank of Canada several months ago after its former owner fell behind in mortgage payments.
With this month’s provincial government announcement, however, who the facility’s new owner will be is the least of Brian Hodgson and Ray Bunn’s worries.
photo: Brian Hodgson
Hodgson, 59, a veteran trainer, calls the province’s decision a “devastating blow to this business.” Standing in the barn that houses the seven horses he trains, he points out that a “pile of people” in the industry will likely lose work. Many spent their entire lives in the business. And although there’s an image of those in the industry being well off financially, most are “ordinary people” who “just get along.”
“It’s a farm- related business,” he says. Many people come from farms. “They can’t just jump out and walk into a factory.”
If the agreement results in a severe industry contraction as many predict, Hodgson will phase out his business, something that he began to do last year after learning of a medical condition that prevents him from driving the carts that the standardbred horses draw.
In the barn next door, Ray Bunn, 36, jokes about finding a new job. Bunn has spent 20 years in the business – his entire working life. Right now, he has 17 horses at the training facility.
Fate of prestigious race series in doubt
Bunn’s concern, along with several others in the horse industry, is the fate of the Ontario Sire Stakes, an annual series of races for two- and three-year-old trotting and pacing horses that are hosted by tracks across the province from May to November. The series offers two levels of competition, grassroots and gold, as well as some plushy purses. The Gold Super final, for example, offers a $300,000 purse.
photo: Ray Bunn
Since the provincial/racetrack deal was struck in 1998, revenue from the slots has helped fund the Stakes’ purses. Straatman says the purses have helped attract interest in the Ontario racing scene from people in other provinces and the United States. Eligibility conditions ensure the money generated remains within provincial borders and fosters the industry. To be considered eligible for the races foals must come from a stallion registered under the program and a mare in the northern hemisphere. Registered stallions must be owned or leased by an Ontario resident and remain in the province for the breeding season.
“Ontario Sire Stakes program was by far the best program in North America,” Straatman says, noting it was a model for other jurisdictions. “It certainly allowed for great competition and for a lot of horses great reward and it’s what’s made horse racing exciting and made it profitable for those who had the skills and the horses to train for it.”
Parallels with Quebec’s devastated industry
Straatman draws parallels between Ontario’s decision to pull out of the slots at the racetrack program and Quebec’s decision a few years ago to end an agreement to operate video lottery terminals at privately operated tracks across the province. The terminals opened in two of the four harness-racing tracks involved but revenues were not as what was initially anticipated. After the government pulled out the tracks’ operator, Attractions Hippiques, closed all four tracks and sought creditor protection. By 2009 the company had declared bankruptcy. With annual fairs providing the only race dates, the Quebec’s horse racing industry nearly disappeared. The province’s jockey club has since coordinated some races. But in the meantime local breeders either closed shop or moved elsewhere.
In Ontario, tracks negotiated individual agreements with the province. Most were supposed to continue until 2016 with a few expiring in 2014 and 2015, says Straatman. So far, the province has announced its intention to end annual payments to all of the racetracks and, by April 30, the closure of slots at racetracks in Windsor, Fort Erie and Sarnia. An Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission report does recommend continuing slots at some racetracks “where there is customer interest.”
This year, 14 of the province’s 18 tracks are scheduled to host OSS races. Wendy Hoogeveen, director of industry development and support at the Ontario Racing Commission, the industry-funded Crown agency that regulates racing in the province and coordinates the OSS, says purses won’t be affected this year. The change will have an impact next year but it’s not known what that impact will be, she adds.
And what of the thousands of horses if the industry collapses?
Hodgson fears that without the money, horse owners may not be able to feed or house their animals and abandon them, creating an animal welfare crisis.
It’s a “major, major concern” says Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association. But “we’re so busy right now trying to not have that event happen - the surplus of a lot of horses - that we really haven’t set our minds to that in great detail,” she says.
Industry rallies supporters
What’s keeping the association and its industry partners so busy are rallies, such as one that took place at Queen’s Park on Monday that drew protestors from Windsor, Fort Erie and Sarnia where racetrack slots are scheduled to close April 30. Participant estimates range from 600 to more than 1,000, says Joe Dickenson, a Lambton County farmer who attended the rally. Dickenson, a beef and cash crop farmer, credits being able to grow hay for the local horse industry for giving him a leg up in his farming career.
Leslie says her association and its industry partners are also organizing rallies at MPP offices throughout the province, to take place on Friday. As well, they have launched an advertising campaign that includes billboards, transit and newspaper ads to raise awareness about the industry’s plight.
Talks continue with government officials, Leslie says, but she is reluctant to comment on these. They “are far, far, far from being over. And so it’s just too early and it would just cause a lot of concern and speculation I think that could turn out to be unwanted.” In the meantime, the public strategy to keep pressure on the government is working, she says, “and we fully intend to keep doing that.” BF