03/13/2012 2:37PM

Slots plan puts Ontario racing in peril; industry seeks support

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario – The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association is battling on after Ontario’s government instructed the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to wind up the province’s racetrack slots program by March 31, 2013.

The measure was one of several issued by the province’s ruling Liberal party after it received an Ontario Lottery and Gaming report on Monday proposing “modernization” of the province’s gambling industry. The Ontario government is facing a $16 billion deficit. It will release its annual budget within the next couple of weeks.

The government also has given the green light for the creation of a new casino in the Greater Toronto Area. Woodbine has been mentioned in news reports as a leading contender along with Ontario Place, on Toronto’s waterfront, and the adjacent Canadian National Exhibition grounds.

“WEG has long held the position that Woodbine is the logical location for a casino in the Greater Toronto Area,” said Nick Eaves, president and CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, in a prepared statement. “Clearly, there is significant gaming customer interest at Woodbine Racetrack, with over 6 million visitors annually.

“Given the success of our long-term partnership, WEG is committed to immediately commencing work with the government and the OLG to develop a mutually beneficial long-term plan. A plan that will best serve the customer, the government’s revenue objectives, and our company’s mandate to maximize financial performance in order to achieve the highest quality of horse racing.”

Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, sees the discontinuation of the racetrack slots program as a potentially fatal blow to the province’s overall racing industry.

“I believe we’ve got to get the public onside,” Leslie said. “I don’t think that the politicians, or the public, understand the ramifications of what they [the government] are recommending.

“The whole industry starts with the horse. Every time you contract the industry, you lose horses. You lose horses, you lose jobs. You lose horses, you lose field size. It’s just a rollout.”

There are 17 racetracks in Ontario and the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association has pointed out that the industry provides 60,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in wages to the province’s residents.

The racetrack slots program has been highly successful with the province overseeing the sites and pocketing the proceeds after the racetracks receive 10 percent, the horsemen 10 percent, and the municipality 5 percent for the first 450 machines and 2 percent for machines in excess of that number.

“I really don’t understand it,” Leslie said. “We’ve done nothing but provide the government with a ton of money, and they haven’t even sat down with us to give us the opportunity to look at ways we could have done this, as partners should, and move forward together to find new forms of revenue for them without decimating the horse racing industry.”

The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association has launched a website, value4money.ca, to encourage Ontario residents to write to their provincial representatives in support of the racetrack slots program.