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HORSE RACING

Eight Ontario tracks left out of alliance to keep industry alive

By Kelly Pedro, Tyler Kula, QMIAgency

Rick Heaman rides behind two-year-old racing horse, Big Rick, as they train on a track at his farm on Fernhill Drive near Ailsa Craig on Friday. CRAIG GLOVER The London Free Press / QMI AGENCY

Rick Heaman rides behind two-year-old racing horse, Big Rick, as they train on a track at his farm on Fernhill Drive near Ailsa Craig on Friday. CRAIG GLOVER The London Free Press / QMI AGENCY

TORONTO  - 

Premier Kathleen Wynne has galloped to the rescue of Ontario’s ailing horse racing industry with a five-year, $400-million plan.

But critics say Wynne shouldn’t be celebrating a win just yet.

“Kathleen Wynne seems to think she should get credit for acting, but she’s a day late and a dollar short,” said New Democrat MPP Taras Natyshak. “That horse won’t race.”

While offering a lifeline to eight Ontario racetracks, the plan is “final blow” for others, including Dresden and Woodstock raceways and Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia, said Monte McNaughton (PC — Lambton-Kent-Middlesex).

“It’s my understanding by looking at the report that Dresden and Hiawatha are done,” he said. “Clearly, it’s a devastating day for the people of Dresden and of Sarnia-Lambton.”

While the plan offers more transparency and accountability, the industry didn’t need to be “blown up” to get to this point, added Peter Core, a Sarnia-area horseman and executive member of the Ontario Harness and Horse Association.

Wynne admitted Friday she thinks the decision under her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, to cut the horse-racing industry off from the slots revenue- sharing program was wrong.

“(This is) the fulfillment of my plan to give horse racing a sure footing moving forward,” she said, while visiting Grand River Raceway in Elora.

The funding works out to $80 million a year for the industry, down from $345 million it got under the previous plan.

While eight racetracks — including London’s Western Fair District and the Clinton Raceway — will share $72 million of that pie, the others not in the alliance will have to submit detailed business plans and fight for the rest.

It’s unclear how the $72 million will be divvied up among the racing alliance when the plan rolls out in April 2014.

But Western Fair’s chief executive officer called it a “clean slate” for the London racetrack with many new opportunities.

“The table has been set for us,” said Hugh Mitchell.

“We’re in the hotbed of harness racing here in Southwestern Ontario and there’s a long tradition of racing here at Western Fair and that tradition will continue on.”

While the future looked bright for the Western Fair, others were left with uncertainty.

Hiawatha owner Jim Henderson said there’s not enough information yet to say how the new plan will work out. The Sarnia track only had 20 race dates this year.

“I wouldn’t have tried to race a year ago if I knew everything was changing like this,” he said. “We spent a lot of money in the past two years to keep everything running.”

Tracks like Hiawatha need funding to bridge them into the government’s new model with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., said Core.

“Hopefully, we’ll all still be here when it turns around,” he said.

A provincial industry transition panel, made up of three former cabinet ministers from all three parties, presented its final report to Wynne recommending a new governance model for the industry.

“The panel has . . . found that a viable horse racing industry is not possible without some form of public funding,” the report says.

Wynne announced that panel member Elmer Buchanan, a former NDP minister, is her choice to replace retiring Ontario Racing Commission chair Rod Seiling.

— With files by Antonella Artuso and Ellwood Shreve 

A CUT OF THE ACTION

In:

— Western Fair and Clinton raceways are both guaranteed provincial cash under a five-year, $400-million plan to keep the racing industry alive.

— The two tracks join six others — Hanover, Grand River, Flamboro, Georgian, Mohawk and Woodbine — in a standardbred racing alliance.

— Those tracks can get up to $72 million a year between them.

Out:

— Dresden, Woodstock and Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia left out of the alliance, along with tracks in Fort Erie, Ajax, Peterborough, Sudbury, Belleville, Ottawa and Leamington.

— They can still get a share of $8 million, but only after submitting detailed business plans.


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