The viability of the province’s horse racing industry – and the livelihood of some 60,000 Ontarians – could depend on the outcome of an upcoming by-election in the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo. That’s why Tory MPPs are urging local horsepeople and the associations that represent them to do whatever it takes to ensure the Liberals don’t secure a majority.
Speaking to some 100 guests, including numerous industry stakeholders, at his Town Hall Meeting in Waterdown last Thursday morning, Progressive Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak said the government’s decision to put an end to the Slots at Racetracks program is “100 per cent wrong.”
“I think it’s a big mistake,” said Hudak. “Hopefully they will realize that what they are doing is wrong-headed, that’s it’s going to cost jobs in a tough economy.”
Earlier this year, the Liberals stated they would put an end to the long-standing program, a revenue-sharing agreement that sees horsemen and racetracks each receive 10 per cent of slots revenues to enhance live racing, enrich the agricultural sector and create purse pools.
The announcement left the horse racing industry reeling. Concerned for their livelihood, local horsemen and women continue to hold out hope that the government will reconsider its decision.
In June, the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough and Westdale, appointed a three-person panel to consult with horsepeople and report back on how the industry can become more sustainable.
Hudak believes this issue would easily be resolved “if the Agriculture Minister stood up and publicly said this is wrong,” he said. “That would end right there.”
“I find it passing strange that (Hudak) would be trying to hold me to a level of accountability that he wasn’t prepared to hold himself to,” said McMeekin of the Progressive Conservative leader, who, he said, has been mute on the issue until just recently.
“I’ve been everything but silent,” said McMeekin, who stands by his party’s decision. “Simply put, the model that is currently in operation and is scheduled to end March 2013 is not viable, is not sustainable,” he said.
The Minister is optimistic that the transition panel will pen suggestions that will not only allow the horse racing industry to survive but to thrive.
“I’ve been working hard and, I think, effectively, in caucus and cabinet to get the group together that can see if we can find some instructive and constructive ways to move forward,” said McMeekin.
Faced with a $345-million shortfall, the horse racing industry says it won’t be able to survive. Already, horsemen claim news of the program’s cancellation, effective next March, has had a negative impact on the industry. And with yearling sales coming up in September, a resolution is needed – pronto.
“If we don’t get a solution prior to the yearling sale, it’s going to be bad times for the racing industry starting the first of September,” said Halton’s Tory MPP Ted Chudleigh at Hudak’s Town Hall Meeting.
He recommended the industry launch an aggressive television advertising campaign, targeted at constituents in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding.
“This government reacts to public opinion; it reacts to bad press,” said Chudleigh.
Hudak said the impacts of the Liberal government’s decision to axe the Slots at Racetracks program has many Flamborough residents concerned. However, those concerns may not be “fully understood” by citizens residing in urban areas of the province.
“Sadly, the government has tried to characterize the horse racing industry as a bunch of rich, Stetson-wearing horse owners, when in reality, there are a lot of hardworking folks, who don’t make much money and they are now struggling to make ends meet,” said Hudak.
The more Ontarians see and understand the consequences of the Liberal government’s decision, noted Hudak, the more they’ll support the need to revisit it.
But it’s up to the horsemen to decide how best to get their message out there, said Hudak.
Launching an advertising campaign may be out of reach financially, said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association.
“They’ve got unlimited funding as the government and we have a small amount of revenue as a horsemen’s association,” he said. “We are fighting against an elephant.”