10/11/2013 1:03PM

Ontario government pledges $400 million over five years for horse racing

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Ontario’s Liberal government will provide $400 million in public funding for the horse-racing industry over five years in a plan announced Friday morning by the province’s premier, Kathleen Wynne.

Thoroughbred purses for Woodbine – before funds from Ontario’s Thoroughbred Improvement Program are included – would total $56 million for a 133-day meeting, the same money and number of race dates as for the 2013 Woodbine meeting. The $56 million includes government funding as well as purse money from handle at Woodbine.

The plan, based on recommendations from the province’s Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel and announced by Wynne at Grand River Raceway in Elora, will run from April 1, 2014, through March 31, 2019.

The $400 million in taxpayer funds will come from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, a government body of which Wynne is the minister, and will include the currently allocated $30 million for the province’s Horse Improvement Program, which provides purse money and bonuses for Ontario-sired and Ontario-bred runners, with half of those funds being for Thoroughbreds.

The transition panel projects that the funding level will provide annual totals of 971 race dates and purses of $128.4 million in Ontario for all breeds – Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horses.

The transition panel’s report claims that the industry will receive more than $1 billion over the five years when rents paid by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. for ontrack slots operations and the pari-mutuel tax reduction returned by the province are added.

Under the slots-at-racetracks program, which was discontinued by the province April 1, the Woodbine Entertainment Group received some $60 million annually, with another $60 million going to horsemen for purses as both entities received 10 percent shares of net revenue from the slots.

Woodbine Entertainment, which operates Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing at Woodbine and Standardbred racing at Mohawk Raceway, received $38 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year from a fund established by the province to help the industry cope with the loss of slots revenue.

Fort Erie, which received $5.5 million for the 2013 season, did not receive any funding under the province’s current plan, leaving the future of that Thoroughbred racetrack in jeopardy. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. canceled the slots program at Fort Erie on April 30, 2012.

“The best business case for the industry is to consolidate most, if not all, Thoroughbred racing at one track – Woodbine,” the panel wrote in its report.

The panel also suggested that Fort Erie be considered as the host of a festival meeting, with horses shipped in on race days in conjunction with regional tourism initiatives. Closing day of the 2013 Fort Erie meet is Tuesday.

A continuation of the current 30-day Quarter Horse calendar at Ajax Downs, supplemented by a limited series of ship-in Thoroughbred races, also was endorsed by the panel.

A new governing body, called Ontario Live Racing, will be responsible for distributing the government funds to the industry while ensuring transparency, accountability, customer focus, and a positive return for Ontario taxpayers.

Ontario Live Racing will have three divisions: Thoroughbred Live, Standardbred Live, and Quarter Horse Live. Funds will be allocated to the three divisions based primarily on their contributions from commissions on live racing.

Province-wide proceeds from wagering on simulcast products would be shared by all tracks. The panel recommended a single advance-deposit wagering system and a single operator for all offtrack betting sites.

Track operators must submit business plans to qualify for the funding.

John Snobelen, a former Ontario cabinet minister who is a member of the transition panel, will head Ontario Live Racing. His fellow panel members, John Wilkinson and Elmer Buchanan, also will have roles under the new plan.

Wilkinson will work with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. on its modernization plan, which will include researching potential horse-racing-themed lottery products and leveraging the corporation’s business, marketing, and responsible-gaming expertise within the horse-racing industry.

Buchanan will become the new chair of the Ontario Racing Commission, replacing the retiring Rod Seiling.

The ORC will be restructured into two divisions, with one continuing its existing regulatory functions and the other distributing funding and working with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. on industry development and growing the customer base.

Sue Leslie, president and chair of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, commented on the report in a press release Friday afternoon. “Looking back on where the industry was in negotiations this time last year, great progress has been made working with Premier Wynne and the Horse Racing Transition Panel,” Leslie said. “However, there are still many aspects of the report which need further dialogue and clarification, especially in relation to the survival of racing at Fort Erie Race Track and securing the necessary investment to ensure the breeding industry survives its severe decline.”

Leslie added that another OHRIA goal was to achieve clarification on the specifics of how horse racing and breeding will be integrated into the OLG modernization plan.