NEWS ANALYSIS: Many still waiting to find out how government slots cash will be replaced

Questions reign in Ontario’s winded horse industry

By Kelly Pedro, The London Free Press

Monday marked the start of a new normal for Ontario’s horse racing industry.

But what’s the new normal? Horse breeders and those in the horse racing industry don’t quite know.

A year after Ontario announced it was ending its revenue-sharing contract with racetracks that gave them a cut of slot cash, horse people know as much now as they did then — and it’s not much.

One thing is for certain: Starting now, there’s no more slot money for racetracks in Ontario.

Ten Ontario racetracks have transition funding deals with a provincial panel struck to work out deals with Ontario’s 17 racetracks and find a new way forward for an industry whose roots run deep in Ontario.

But whether those deals will give horse breeders and horse people enough to stay in business, isn’t yet known.

“I don’t know because we don’t know yet,” said longtime breeder Jack McNiven, of Killean Acres in Ingersoll.

And at Ontario’s largest horse breeder, Seelster Farms in Lucan, the situation isn’t much better.

Ann Straatman said the farm has felt the brunt of the changes since the province announced it was ending the slots-at-racetracks program a year ago. The price for yearlings is down and people don’t know how much money is available to race.

The province has been signing transition deals with racetracks, but so far, those have been kept private.

“Breeders are still waiting for the plan. If the plan looks unfavourable, breeders will not invest. We know (the industry) will be smaller, but we don’t know how much smaller,” she said. “It was difficult before this happened for breeders to get a return on their investment . . . It has been even more difficult now. It’s been a waiting game.”

Kawartha Downs struck an 11th-hour deal with the province Friday night, securing live racing there through to 2014 and joining nine other racetracks, including Western Fair District, Clinton and Hanover.

But others are still up in the air, including Dresden, Woodstock and Hiawatha in Sarnia.

Tuesday, transition panel member and former Ontario cabinet minister John Snobelen said he’s meeting with Ajax Downs and the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) about what the quarter horse season will look like.

Later this week, he’s travelling to Sudbury to meet with that racetrack about its season.

“There’s still two or three or four tracks that are still actively engaged (in negotiations),” he said.

Dresden has filed a request to change some of its racing dates with the ORC, but Snobelen said the panel hasn’t yet spoken with that racetrack about transition money.

“Frankly what we’ve done is tried to slice this into tracks that were most important early in the year, so April-May racing, and then the tracks that are more traditionally summer tracks we pushed off until later this month,” said Snobelen.

But while horse people have been dreading April 1st as D-Day for their industry, Snobelen said it’s just the beginning.

“It’s kind of a nice transition and frankly it’s kind of nice to get to this side of that divide and be working on the next season as opposed to trying to put out fires,” he said.

But don’t tell that to McNiven.

When asked whether he expected to know more than he does about the industry’s future, McNiven was clear.

“Good heavens, yes,” he said. “Months and months and months ago. This is ridiculous. This is 13 months, almost, and . . . the commentary that has happened since that time, it’s been phenomenal and yet there’s nothing there solid yet.”

It’s been doom and gloom for one of McNiven’s clients, a hobbyist who has told McNiven he doesn’t see a future in the business.

“If the hobbyists still don’t want to stay in, how can the actual participants, the breeders, the trainers, how are they going to be game enough to still keep going because we’re not the wealthy horse people the government wants to portray us as,” he said.

“We’re hard working people that just struggle day-to-day to keep going.”

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17: Ontario racetracks

10: Racetracks with transitional funding, including Western Fair District, Hanover and Clinton

7: Racetracks without, including Dresden, Woodstock and Hiawatha

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