Horse racing has a future in Ontario if the industry and province work together, a former agriculture minister says.
Elmer Buchanan, one of three former cabinet ministers serving on the province’s Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel, told The Intelligencer the group is now more optimistic about the sport’s prospects.
Ontario’s Slots at Racetracks funding program will end March 31, 2013. The panel is exploring ways to retool the racing industry.
“The panel is very optimistic,” Buchanan said in a telephone interview from Guelph, where the panel is holding meetings all week.
“We believe that it’s going to be at a size that’s significant and is going to be able to survive in Ontario.
“The government has encouraged us to continue to dialogue with the industry — both the horsemen and the tracks — to see if they are willing to work toward a solution,” Buchanan said.
“We’ve got a positive response from both sides on that.
He and fellow panelists John Snobelen and John Wilkinson are to file their final report by month’s end.
Buchanan said the future of race horses is also looking brighter.
The panel had said 13,000 horses could be killed. That alarmed the Quinte Humane Society and others who feared so many deaths or so many animals entering the shelter system.
“That’s a worst-case scenario. In fact, we don’t see that now,” Buchanan said.
“People started breeding more and more horses because there was more money to race for.
“We hope to have a plan that wouldn’t have any need to euthanize horses. But we wanted to be open about it and be clear that if there wasn’t support, at least in the near term, then these horses have no home.
“We’re certainly cognizant of that. We’ve met with various organizations that do rescues,” he said.
Yet Ed Thompson, the Belleville-area representative for the Ontario Harness Horse Association, said the original figure may even have been low. Ontario in 2010 had 26,338 active race horses, the panel reported.
“A $100,000 horse, after Christmas, is going to be worth nothing,” Thompson added.
Belleville horseman Gary Morey said he doubts so many would be slaughtered.
“People say they’ll go to slaughter, but they’ll have a heart. They’ll find new homes,” said Morey.
The panel’s interim report, tabled Aug. 17, supported the province’s move to stop funding racing with slot-machine revenue. But the trio also feels the province’s transition funding of up to $50 million over three years isn’t enough.
“The program has provided far more money than was needed to stabilize the industry — its original purpose — and has done so without compelling the industry to invest in a better consumer experience,” the panel wrote in August.
“Slots revenue has enabled the industry to avoid facing up to the challenges of today’s intensely competitive gaming and entertainment marketplace,” read the report.
Yet the panel also reported racing cannot survive without either slot-machine funding or new revenue and the government should keep the sport as “a key component” of its gaming strategy.
Buchanan said he’d taken fire from some who believed he had “a preconceived notion” about shrinking the industry. He said he had no such view but the numbers were clear.
“We knew that when you take $345 million that was supporting the industry with slot revenue away, obviously that industry is going to have to change,” said Buchanan.
“From the panel’s perspective the more the government can put in the larger the industry will be.
“It has to be clear and transparent ways of saying that this money is being invested and the government gets a return, whether it’s jobs or HST or whatever,” said Buchanan.
“We think the industry needs to increase wagering in order to be able to support itself,” he added. “That’s a natural source of income.”