Horse racing at Hiawatha Horse Park is stuck in limbo while industry officials await a word from a government panel.
Jim Henderson, who owns the Sarnia entertainment venue, said he intended to host races up to January, if possible, but Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s recent decision to prorogue parliament has brought that plan to a halt.
“We don’t know what’s happening,” said Henderson. “The province hasn’t talked to the racing commission and now you can’t talk to anybody because nobody’s there.”
The Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel, comprised of former cabinet ministers Elmer Buchanan, John Snobelen and John Wilkinson, has been working to find ways to support the remaining racetracks, and how best to allocate $50 million in provincial funding over three years.
A panel report from August said ending the Slots-at-Racetracks Program (SARP) could cause the potential closure of 11 of 17 racetracks in the province, reduce the GDP by $200 million to $400 million, and cost 3,500 to 5,800 jobs provincewide.
Ted McMeekin, minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, has received the panel’s final report for review but it isn’t clear when it will be released, said Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey.
“The Minister of Agriculture should immediately release the report,” Bailey said in a release. “Despite what they think, not everyone’s life can be put on hold while the Liberals rummage around for a new leader.”
Henderson said with racetracks in Windsor and London shut down there was a chance to make up lost revenue by attracting more people to Sarnia with fall and winter racing. That would help offset a shortfall from the government-directed closure of Hiawatha Slots earlier this year.
But with no provincial funding, and no slots revenue, tracks aren’t scheduling any races, he said. The 700 race workers at Hiawatha — including owners, grooms, trainers and drivers — aren’t working, and 130 Hiawatha employees are laid off, along with 150 OLG workers.
“The race tracks that are still open, they don’t know if they’re going to get any funding from the province,” Henderson said.
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) announced earlier this year it will stop contributing to the purse at tracks after March 31, 2013.
Hiawatha may only operate seasonally going forward, Henderson said, noting he’s re-examining every aspect of his business.
He was scheduled to meet with Bailey, Sarnia-Lambton MP Pat Davidson and Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley on Friday to discuss strategies. The provincial race track industry employs nearly 50,000 people.
“I can’t see why Sarnia got cut out of everything,” Henderson said, noting Hiawatha’s downturn has also impacted gas stations, motels and coffee shops nearby.
“There was billions of dollars in 13 years that went through here and it doesn’t make any sense that it just ended,” he said.