10/11/2012 1:44PM

Ontario racing industry marshals support for better provincial aid package

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The Ontario racing industry is in the midst of a last-ditch drive to convince the provincial government that a three-year, $50 million assistance package recommended by the province’s finance minister is inadequate to protect the sport in the absence of revenue from slot machines.

The effort has picked up steam over the past several weeks due to the late-September release of an interim report from a three-member committee of former cabinet ministers studying the impact of the province’s earlier decision to terminate agreements that provided revenues from slot machines to Ontario horsemen, breeders, and racetracks. The report provided the racing industry with a ray of hope when it called the $50 million package “insufficient to provide a bridge to sustainability” for the provincial racing industry.

The committee, which has been working closely with racing industry groups, according to officials, is expected to release final recommendations by the end of October. It will then be up to the legislature to adopt, reject, or amend the recommendations, which has led racing groups to focus their lobbying efforts on the province’s lawmakers.

“We’re doing our best to work with key people as far as giving them the numbers we feel best represents the size and impact and importance of the Ontario racing industry,” said Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association. “The interim report was very hopeful. We continue to be cautiously optimistic about the final report.”

The committee was formed in the wake of an abrupt decision earlier this year to end a program that placed casinos operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation at 17 racetracks in Ontario. Under the program, racetracks and horsemen received a 20 percent cut of the net revenue from the casinos. In the last fiscal year, that amounted to $345 million, with the majority going to Woodbine racetrack, which will operate the province’s only Thoroughbred meet after the closure of Fort Erie on Dec. 31.

Some of the lobbying efforts are being led by Dennis Mills, a former provincial legislator and government aide. Mills, who also was the chief executive of Frank Stronach’s now defunct MI Developments for two years, has led the efforts through a website that allows visitors to directly contact the province’s legislators.

Last weekend, 1,300 e-mails were sent to legislators in the province after Mills’s group sent an e-mail blast to racing fans urging them to voice their support for the industry, Mills said.

“If you’re at a hockey game, you don’t start cheering until the game starts,” Mills said. “The game has started, and we’re trying to get our voices heard. If you are a legislator and you get 1,300 e-mails, that gets your attention.”

The government has said that the money provided to the racing industry would be better used to fund social programs. Leslie and Mills said that they have been working strenuously to emphasize the economic impact of the racing industry in Ontario and that the committee has been receptive to the industry’s arguments.

“The panel is the first government body that has honestly taken the time to understand the impact of the Ontario racing industry,” Leslie said. “But they’re in a difficult position because we’re trying to close a severe deficit here.”

It’s the racing industry’s best hope that the government will continue to operate a casino at Woodbine, to take advantage of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have already been invested in the casino facility at the track. The Ontario Lottery is currently in negotiations with tracks that may continue to operate casinos, including Woodbine, but even if an agreement is reached, the odds that the racing industry will continue to receive a 20 percent cut are long. In addition, the government has made it clear that it intends to open a casino in downtown Toronto, providing competition in the metro area for a Woodbine casino for the first time.

Woodbine officials did not return phone calls seeking comment on the negotiations.

“It would be very hard for me to believe that [Woodbine] won’t, at the end of the day, work out some deal with the government,” Leslie said. “How foolish would it be to turn your back on hundreds of millions of dollars that the [Woodbine] casino has generated? That being said, there certainly are no guarantees.”