The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) horse racing industry transition panel’s final report released Oct. 30 is a hopeful sign for the horse racing industry but they’re anxious to seal a deal with the government.
Bill O’Donnell, president of the Central Ontario Standardbred Association, says the panel – Elmer Buchanan, John Snobelen and John Wilkinson – worked hard to come up with a plan to help the industry transition to a new funding model. The current model supported by the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) ends March 31. Now, he says, with the framework of the report in hand, it’s time for government and the industry to come to a final agreement.
“What’s there is there,” he says, adding, “there’s a whole lot of things to consider.” One of the big questions, O’Donnell says, is how many tracks are going to race. The report recommends cutting the number of race days in half to about 800 a year. Currently, 60 per cent of purse money comes from SARP. The panel proposes that all purse money come from pari-mutuel wagering. Before SARP, the take from wagering was divided between the track and the purses. The panel is saying, with fewer races, wagering should support the purses and the government should support the tracks.
“With purses fully funded from the pari-mutuel handle,” the report says, “racetracks will require government investment in their operations. “
With half the race days and a new purse structure, O’Donnell says there will be questions about who can race and where. Which tracks will be able to keep going?
“Who is going to say, ‘I’m not going to race or who is going to say you’re not going to race?’ ” O’Donnell asks. Transition money, O’Donnell says, would go to purses.
“That’s what drives the whole industry,” he says. “That $345 million (from SARP for purses and racetracks) that was going into racing was going back into the economy,” O’Donnell says. “Believe me, there’s no guys here living in castles.”
Sue Leslie, chair and president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA), says there are things she likes in the report and things she doesn’t like.
“There are things there that I don’t envision working and other things that could work,” she says. Race dates, which she says have to be set by the end of November, are one of her top concerns.
“Everything ties into the race dates,” Leslie says, “for tracks to know what they are going to have in terms of operating expenses, for horse people to understand what their purses are going to be and for breeders to understand what the Ontario Sires Horse Improvement Program (HIP) program is going to look like, all those things need clarity. A lot of things in the report require discussion and clarity.”
Leslie says, “There’s a lot to be worked out and not a lot of time to work it out in so I expect this going to move along pretty expeditiously now.”
As for transition funding, she says, “ORIA asked for $210 million and that’s our view. That’s what we think the industry needs.”