As students head back to the University of Guelph this week, those pursuing a career in equine medicine or other equine-related pursuits are faced with a less-certain future given the government’s decision to cancel the Slots at Racetracks program.
When the slots program ends next March, some 30,000 full-time equivalent jobs will be at risk within the horse racing industry itself. A severely diminished industry will also mean there will be fewer horses requiring veterinary care.
Dr. Jeff Thomason, from the Department of Biomedical Science, said Wednesday he estimates about 10 to 15 per cent of students at the Ontario Veterinary College are equine specialists.
“They’re nervous. They’re saying, ‘Here we are mid-program and all of a sudden our careers are potentially being whisked away from us.’ I don’t think it’s quite that bad and I think by the time they graduate it will have sorted out. But, certainly, it’s going to make the job market unsettled for several years, no question,” Thomason said.
More troubling is the fact the racing industry currently funds research through Equine Guelph, a progressive program that provides a bridge between racing and the university.
Thomason, the chair of Equine Guelph’s Research Committee, said “the research is going to get impacted down the line. In any given year, 80 per cent or more of the research funding is directly linked to the racing industry. . . . As their dollars decline, so will ours.”
Thomason is already forecasting a decline in research funds between 20 and 50 per cent for 2013.
Even the money that flows to research from the amount wagered on horses—not slots—will decrease, Thomason said. For example, the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) currently funds research at Equine Guelph through a percentage of its operating funds that flows from pari-mutuel wagering.
“The ORC is projecting a significant downturn in horse wagering as this unfolds as the number of tracks goes down,” Thomason said. “Their income, which is tied directly to the wagering, is going to change, too. So will ours because there’s a formula. . . . We’re going to get a ripple effect from the slots, though we’re not directly tied to it.”
Equine Guelph has already seen a decline in enrollment for this semester for a range of equine courses and certificates it offers to the general public, said director Gayle Ecker.
“The tuition from our courses is an important revenue stream that we invest back into our training and educational programs for the industry. We have already seen a decrease in industry funding, so this hits us twice,” Ecker said Wednesday.
While research will decrease and equine students may have a more difficult time finding employment in Ontario, Thomason said Equine Guelph might be a critical resource to an industry in transition.
“Equine Guelph can offer education and retraining to people in the (racing) industry to allow them to stay within the horse industry but change jobs,” Thomason said. “Obviously, you can’t over night go from working in a thoroughbred stable to a hunter/jumper stable. They’re very different animals. Some retraining is going to be necessary. Whether the jobs will exist is another question, but at least we would be providing qualified people.”
Thomason said the university also has extensive expertise in agri-business the racing industry can use to “rebrand itself and, therefore, restabilize itself over the next few years.
“The way I view it is there’s going to be a downturn, but if we can be seen to be out there helping the industry, then they will recognize the importance of Equine Guelph and the importance of research and education for the horse owner. As the industry rebounds, so will the fortunes of Equine Guelph. So, it’s in our best interest to help the industry get out of this pit.”