01/13/2009 12:00AM

Ontario harness fight left leadership toppled


TUCSON, Ariz. - Failed revolutions are fascinating to watch, particularly in real time.

The current movie "Valkyrie" spells that out, telling of one of the most famous coups, albeit with a bit of poetic license allowed all wartime interpretations in Hollywood.

There is no substitute for living through the actual thing, however, and there are those of us in racing who are doing that, right now, complete with daring gambles and fallen leaders.

When contract negotiations between Woodbine Entertainment Group and the Ontario Harness Horse Association stalled as the new year dawned, the OHHA gambled.

Its leaders, president James Whelan and chief operations officer John Walzak, rolled the dice. Either they are better off economically than their members, or they seriously underestimated how much those members enjoy eating three square meals a day.

Whelan and Walzak called for a boycott of the entry box at Woodbine, believing they could bring racing to a halt at Canada's biggest track.

The horsemen did not agree with their leaders' idea. They met and voted against the boycott, preferring to race on a very tough circuit in some very tough times.

After wiping the egg off their faces, Whelan and Walzak looked for an explanation, and tried calling the withdrawal "a further show of good faith" to assist negotiations, saying the boycott was necessary but acknowledging it "was creating a situation whereby many horsepeople were suffering financially, while others were benefiting."

Woodbine took it from there.

It thanked its horsemen for their support during the call for a boycott, accused the OHHA of misprepresenting key issues, and reiterated its assurances that purse contributions were "protected and assured" by access agreements, which it called binding contracts. Woodbine said it had "no intention whatsoever of changing these agreements until such time as an agreement with WEG's horsepeople is in place."

In addition, Woodbine said that the site holder agreements between the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and its tracks provide for and protect the horsepeople's 10 percent share of slot machine revenue that goes into purses, and will continue to do so for another five years at WEG's Mohawk Raceway operation and another six at Woodbine itself. The track said it wanted to make clear that it would not use its private-property rights for exclusion in cases of positive tests other than class 1, 2, or 3 positives for performance-enhancing drugs or carbon dioxide violations.

"WEG is a not-for-profit corporation," Woodbine reminded its horsemen. "It is composed of horsemen. The directors believe passionately in honest, exciting, quality harness racing. They have no desire to reduce purses. To do so would be contrary to their very objectives. OHHA's suggestions to this effect are both offensive and illogical."

Woodbine said it was clear that the company and OHHA "have fundamentally different beliefs when it comes to the product of harness racing, the necessity for integrity, the importance of the customer, and indeed the very future of horse racing."

At that point Whelan and Walzak might have walked away, their heads intact.

Instead, they did an amazing thing.

They sent a letter to every member of the Ontario Parliament, urging them to instruct the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to withhold WEG's share of slot-machine revenue until Woodbine signed a contract with OHHA.

We did not see David Willmot's face when the Woodbine leader learned of the letter, but it was clear from the red glow over Lake Erie that he was livid.

He said it was "regrettable" that the OHHA "continued to act in bad faith," and a Woodbine release said the horsemen's association's attempt to engage third parties to interfere with WEG's private commercial matters constituted "a serious interference with WEG's economic and contractual relations with the Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation." It suggested the action could be inducing breach of contract, and it told the OHHA "to cease and desist."

More important, WEG told the horsemen it had determined it would hold no further discussions with their organization in discussing a new contract, and would "focus its efforts" on contracting with horsepeople that race at Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks "and share WEG's vision for honest, exciting, quality horse racing." Until then, it would use the access agreements as guarantees to horsepeople.

That rolling noise heard next was Jim Whelan's head spinning out the door, and the announcement that Bill O'Donnell, a Hall of Famer on both sides of the border and one of the most accomplished and popular drivers in Canadian harness racing history, had been nominated and elected president at an early Monday meeting.

It wasn't exactly a coup in the full sense of the word, but it sure qualified as a palace revolt. And it certainly was a full-blooded failed revolution, right before our eyes, in real time and vivid color.