Should taxpayers be asked to support the horse racing industry?
Last summer Ted McMeekin, now the former Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, asked John Wilkinson, Elmer Buchanan and I to address that question.
Back then the McGuinty government had announced the cancellation the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP), a program initiated by the Harris government. You might have thought the cancellation of SARP would have caused a few arguments between three former cabinet ministers from the Rae, Harris and McGuinty governments. But it didn’t.
Early in our deliberations it became obvious that the SARP program was more than overly rich, it was harmful to the horse racing industry. How can a program that dropped $345 million a year into the racing industry be harmful, you ask?
That much money distorted the industry. Instead of horses competing for purses funded from wagered on races, Ontario was the host of hundreds of races funded by slot machines. Owners, breeders and trainers were disconnected from horseplayers and racing fans. It simply didn’t matter that most of the races attracted few fans and little wagering.
All that mattered was the ping-ping sound from slot machines.
We concluded that SARP was bad public policy. It had to go.
But we also found that without some form of public support the racing industry would die. Around the world successful racing programs receive some form of additional revenue from government.
To improve the industry we recommended tying purses directly to the revenue generated from wagering. With purses consuming all of the gambling revenue, the government would need to help with the operating costs of racetracks and support for Ontario horse breeders.
So the answer to the question of taxpayers supporting horse racing is yes. A healthy horse racing industry, and the jobs it creates, requires public support. But any public investment in horse racing has to have a reasonable return for taxpayers and, ultimately, the industry should always be dependent on its customers.
Turns out that wasn’t the answer some in the horse racing industry wanted to hear.
Governments facing tough times are not looking for places to spend money. To its credit, the Wynne government has moved to make the right investments in the horse racing industry. Negotiations are underway with tracks and $30 million has been dedicated to supporting Ontario-bred racehorses. The Woodbine Entertainment Group has undertaken serious cost reductions at Mohawk and Woodbine to keep racing alive and well at Ontario’s premier tracks.
None of this is easy work and the task of adjusting to the right size for their customer base will be even harder for some in the racing industry. In the lower ranks of standardbred racing — races that attract minimal wagering — the required decline in racing opportunities will be difficult.
The upside of all of this restructuring will be a smaller, more focused Ontario horse racing industry. With more attention on the needs of the racing fan, and less on the sounds of slot machines, the industry can build a solid foundation for growth.
Change is never easy. A more competitive horse racing industry will leave some behind. But, as in any sport, the best will rise to the top. They always do.
The offer of tax dollars to support the racing industry isn’t enough for some people. To those who feel entitled to billions in slot revenues, millions will never be enough.
Truth be told, that may be just fine. Just like any other industry, the future of racing belongs to those with the courage to face reality.