John MacMillan, a race-horse owner in Eastern Ontario, put his farm up for sale this week – one day before Premier Kathleen Wynne rolled out $400-million in new funding over five years for the ailing industry.
The funding is too little, too late for many horse owners and breeders across Ontario, among the biggest casualties of the previous government’s decision to kill a revenue-sharing program with the province’s racetrack operators.
“This is simply treading water or a potential bridge to survival for horse people,” Mr. MacMillan said in a phone interview from his farm in the village of Spencerville, near Ottawa. “This is not financial viability.”
Ms. Wynne adopted a report by a panel of former cabinet ministers, released on Friday. The panel essentially chose winners and losers, industry players said.
James Thibert, chief executive officer of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, counts his racetrack among the losers. The panel’s report calls for the end of thoroughbred racing at Fort Erie, a move that would leave Woodbine Entertainment Group without any competition on that front.
“They got a lot of preferential treatment,” Mr. Thibert said, adding that he plans to challenge that decision.
Nick Eaves, chief executive officer of Woodbine, lauded the announcement, saying in a statement it will “lay a strong foundation for the long-term sustainability of horse racing in Ontario.”
A standoff between Woodbine and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., played a key role in the previous government’s decision last year to cancel the slot-machine revenue-sharing deal, The Globe and Mail has reported. The slots-at-racetrack program had generated $4-billion for racetracks and just under $10-billion for provincial coffers since 1998.
The Globe has reported that Woodbine refused to disclose executive pay to the OLG. Ontario’s gambling regulator launched a probe last year into Woodbine’s compensation practices after receiving a complaint from the OLG about lucrative pay for top executives – money that many in the industry say should have gone to improving the promotion of breeding and attracting more spectators and bettors.
The cancellation of the slots program devastated Mr. MacMillan’s horse farm. He owns just four standardbred horses today, down from 51 the day the slots program ended on March 31. He has sold “pretty much everything” he owns to pay the bills and listed his 88-acre farm for sale because he can no longer make the mortgage payments.
Bob Broadstock’s farm near Port Perry, Ont., had 35 horses at its peak. But with just 22 horses, he worries that it’s becoming a part-time job.
“It was always my dream to become a full-time horse person. I got there, and now I’m faced with the reality of maybe going back the other way,” he said in an interview.
The new funding deal is Ms. Wynne’s attempt to quell the backlash that erupted over the cancellation of the program in rural Ontario, where standardbred racing has deep roots.
For the second time this week, she distanced herself from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
“I thought that decision on this industry was not a good decision, that we needed a revision of that policy,” she said on Friday.
The panel’s report says the industry will receive total funding of about $1-billion over five years, including rent the OLG pays to racetracks to house slot machines. About 90 per cent of the new government funding will be earmarked for thoroughbred races at Woodbine’s track in Toronto, as well as a group of eight standardbred tracks and quarter-horse racing at Ajax Downs, the report says.
Sudbury Downs is one of the standardbred tracks that will receive the remaining 10 per cent of funding. Patrick MacIsaac, president of Sudbury Downs, said he has watched the jobs that have disappeared “ripple through the whole agricultural economy up here.”
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