by DAVE PINK
Of the 15 harness racing tracks now operating in the province, Brian Tropea of the Ontario Harness Horse Association says he doesn’t expect any of them will survive a future without slot machines.
“I would be surprised if any of them make it through,” Tropea said Thursday after Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin announced the provincial government will spend up to $50 million over the next three years to help ease the horse-racing industry into a future without slots.
As well, McMeekin announced that a panel of three former Ontario cabinet ministers — Elmer Buchanan, John Snobelen and John Wilkinson — will work with representatives from the racing industry to map out its future and determine where the money will be spent.
“I don’t think that will be enough to sustain the industry,” said Tropea. “Obviously, we will have to meet with this panel and express our very serious concerns.”
The panel is to report its findings by the end of the summer.
Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) announced in March it would end its 14-year partnership with the province’s horse tracks and relocate its slot machines into urban centres — a move that could potentially put 60,000 full-and part-time horse industry jobs in jeopardy.
At the time, Sue Leslie, president of the Toronto-based Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, said the decision made no economic sense, and also predicted the possible end of horse racing in Ontario.
Under an arrangement set in the late 1998, when the slot machines started moving into the tracks, a deal was struck that allowed the province to receive 75 per cent of the profits — or about $1 billion a year — while 20 per cent went to the track and the remaining five per cent went to the host municipality.
OLG has since paid out $3.7 billion to the racetracks and the horse industry. The racing industry is expected to receive a payment of $340 million from OLG this year.
Leslie said that in 2010 Ontario’s horse tracks paid $382 million in taxes to the federal government, $261 million to the province and $138 million to the municipalities. “On the basis of value for the money, they won’t find a better deal.”
Meanwhile, it was announced this week that Fort Erie's 115-year-old thoroughbred racetrack will close Dec. 31. The track's board voted Tuesday night to close the facility, concluding it can’t go on after the government pulled the plug on the OLG slots at the track in April.
"It should come as no surprise to anyone," Jim Thibert was quoted in a St. Catharines Standard news story. Thibert is Fort Erie's economic development and tourism corporation general manager, and chief executive of the racing consortium board.
The slots provided $6 million in annual funding through a revenue sharing agreement with the province
McMeekin said in a news release Thursday that the provincial government wants to help direct the racing industry toward a sustainable, self-sufficient future.
He said the panel will work with the industry to help develop that vision for the future, would provide recommendations to the government on how to allocate transition funding, and would advise on the modernization of the industry.
“It is important for the horse racing industry to develop a new vision for its future. I look forward to hearing the panel’s recommendations on how we can provide transitional support for the industry,” McMeekin said in the release.
“Our government understands that ending the Slots-at-Racetracks program and responding to market demands poses a challenge for everyone involved in the horse racing industry. That’s why we are committed to helping the industry move toward greater self-sufficiency without government support,” said Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, also in a news release.
As well, it was announced that Employment Ontario will help displaced horse industry find jobs and training.
In 2011, the horse racing industry received $415 million — $345 million through the Slots-At-Racetrack-Program and the remainder from the pari-mutuel tax, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced. In addition to revenue from OLG slots, since 1996, the province has allowed the horse racing industry to keep approximately $70 million generated annually through a provincial government arrangement involving the pari-mutuel tax on wagering.
Members of the panel represent each of Ontario’s three major political parties.
Buchanan was the minister of agriculture in Bob Rae’s NDP government from 1990 to 1995 and represented the riding of Hastings- Peterborough. He is currently a vice-chair of the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission and raises alpacas and angora goats on a farm near Havelock.
John Snobelen is an internationally renowned horseman and was inducted into the National Reining Horse Association Hall of Fame in 1994. He was the minister of education and minister of natural resources in the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government and was the MPP from Mississauga North and later Mississauga West from 1995 to 2003. Snobelen is president of Beyond Consensus Inc., a firm specializing in conflict resolution.
John Wilkinson was at various times the environment minister, the revenue minister and the minister of research and innovation in the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government, and the MPP from Perth County He’s a financial planner and is president and chief operating officer of Wilkinson Insight Incorporated of Stratford. BF
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