Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal wants the provincial government to continue to subsidize the horse racing industry, only he’s not calling it a subsidy – he’s calling it an investment.
Leal has proposed that the province keep slot facilities at eight to 10 horse racing tracks through a modified version of the existing program or allow the gambling facilities to relocate but still give the tracks a share of the slot machine revenue as a way of maintaining the horse racing industry.
The tracks that would keep the slot facilities or share of the slot revenue would be chosen based on geographic basis, Leal said on Thursday when he released his proposal to the public.
“All these dollars stay locally and it creates jobs for people,” he said. “It’s not a subsidy, but it’s an investment.”
The provincial government plans to end the $345-million-a-year subsidy that it gives through the slots-at-racetracks program as part of its efforts to eliminate the province’s deficit. The money goes to the people who race horses through race purses, to racetrack owners and to municipalities that host the slots-at-racetracks facilities.
There are 14 slots facilities at racetracks across the province. Ontario Lottery and Gaming closed slot facilities at three other horse racetracks earlier this year – Windsor Raceway, Fort Erie Race Track and Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia.
Horse racing industry officials estimate that the industry supports 55,000 to 60,000 direct and indirect jobs, but a recent analysis done for the government estimated the industry supports 13,540 direct and indirect jobs.
The Ministry of Finance’s gaming policy branch estimates that 11 of the province’s 17 racetracks would likely not survive if the government phases out the slot-at-racetracks program.
Leal gave his proposal to a panel that’s reviewing the transition from the slots-at-racetrack program at the beginning of the month.
He held a press conference at his constituency office on King St. on Thursday to publicly release his proposal. Representatives from the Ontario Harness Horse Association and Peterborough County Federation of Agriculture were at the announcement.
A representative from the Kawartha Downs ownership was conspicuously absent.
As part of his submission, Leal used information on race purses at the province’s racetracks that he got from Flamboro Downs in Hamilton, Ont., not from the racetrack in his own riding.
Leal’s proposal includes a recommendation to review whether the government should give the money to non-profit instead of for-profit companies that run racetracks.
“I heard anecdotal evidence that the owner of Kawartha Downs has used proceeds from the slots at tracks program to subsidize other business interests,” Leal states in the letter to Ontario Horse Racing Review Task Force.
“I think the intent in 1998 was the revenue that was generated through that (program) would be invested back in to the horse racing businesses,” Leal said Thursday.
Kawartha Downs owner Harvey Ambrose didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
Management at the track in Fraserville, southwest of Peterborough, have told people who race their horses at the track that there won’t be horse racing at the facility next year if the government stops giving money to the track.
Leal pointed out that some tracks with slot facilities, such as Western Fair in London, Ont., are owned by not-for-profit businesses.
“The dollars, because they’re not-for-profit, were directly invested back in to improve the industry,” he said.
Western Fair District racetrack is owned by an agricultural society. Out of the 17 horse racing tracks in the province, six are owned by not-for-profit businesses including Woodbine in Toronto and Mohawk in Milton.
In the 1960s, Peterborough’s extremely successful horse racing track at Morrow Park was operated as a not-for-profit business by the Peterborough Exhibition Society and the Peterborough Driving Club, Leal said.
“I think we need appropriate oversight, whether it’s for profit or not for profit, to make sure that any approaches that we take the dollars that are intended for the horse racing industry go back into the horse racing industry… to sustain a viable industry,” he said.
David Gibson, a local Ontario Harness Horse Association representative, didn’t want to comment on whether the tracks should be for-profit or not-for-profit businesses.
“It’s encouraging that some Liberal MPPs have recognized the importance of the horse racing industry and they feel the need now to work with us to find a path forward,” he said. “I don’t think as an industry we want to see any race tracks lost, but if this model comes to fruition we’ll deal with what we have to deal with.”