Updated on 03/14/2012 2:36PM

Fort Erie one of three Ontario tracks to lose its casino


ETOBICOKE, Ontario – The first dominos in the Ontario racetrack-slots program fell Wednesday morning with the news that slots areas at Fort Erie, Windsor Raceway, and Hiawatha Horse Park would be closed permanently by the end of April.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation chairman Paul Godfrey and Liberal government finance minister Dwight Duncan announced the casino closings at a press conference at Windsor Raceway.

The news is a blow for Fort Erie, which has been in a tenuous position for the last few years and now will be losing its share from 400 slot machines. Fort Erie, home to the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, is scheduled to hold 76 days of Thoroughbred racing and five days of Quarter Horse racing this year.

“We’ll run the races this year, no problem,” said Sue Leslie, who has been heavily involved in Fort Erie’s cause through her roles in the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, and the Ontario division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

“But, we’re going to face some pretty serious consequences after that, unless we can pull a rabbit out of a hat in the next couple of months. We’ll try to come up with a plan.”

Leslie said the province would honor this final year of a $5.6 million commitment to Fort Erie, which would replace the lost slots revenues and should keep the purse account healthy provided wagering remains steady.

Ontario’s 17 racetracks have been involved in a revenue-sharing program under which 10 percent of slots revenues go to the racetracks, 10 percent to horsemen, and 5 percent to the municipality where the track is located for the first 450 machines and 2 percent for additional stations.

The province, which is facing a $16 billion deficit, wants to end that revenue-sharing agreement and commissioned the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, which oversees the province’s casinos and the slots programs, to find ways to increase Ontario’s gaming revenues. On Monday, the province directed the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to end the racetrack slots program by March 31, 2013.

All three affected racetracks are located on the Canada-United States border close to full-service provincial casinos, which additionally feature table games.

Fort Erie is just down the road from the Niagara Falls Casino and Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Caesars Windsor is located across the river from Detroit, and is not far from Windsor Raceway, a harness track. Hiawatha Horse Park, another harness facility, is located in Sarnia, not far from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation casino in Point Edward, near Port Huron, Mich.

“Fewer Americans are crossing the border to play slot machines at border sites,” Godfrey, of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, said. “A decade ago, border casinos returned a net profit of $800 million a year. Today, that profit is less than $100 million and falling.”

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, in a press release, said it “currently expects to continue to make reasonable payments to the operators” of the affected racetracks “until March 31, 2013, as long as live horse racing continues.”

Godfrey said at the press conference that some slots programs may remain at racetracks, but did not elaborate on what kind of financial arrangement would be involved. The largest racetrack slots operation in the province is the Woodbine Entertainment Group, which is approved to operate 3,000 machines. Woodbine, for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2010, the latest for which statistics are available, generated $120 million for the racing industry.

The province has claimed that new gambling initiatives, which include a Toronto-area casino and selling lottery tickets online and at retail checkouts, will create 2,300 net new industry jobs and some 4,000 service sector jobs. The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association points out that some 60,000 Ontarians earn their livings through horse racing and are significant contributors to the province’s economy.

“OHRIA is still doing everything we can,” said Leslie. “It’s vital that people contact their members of parliament, their local politicians, and even the premier’s office to let them know where they stand on this.”