The horse-racing industry in Ontario will receive new funding of $400-million over five years, as part of a restructuring plan to support tracks and breeders.
Premier Kathleen Wynne laid out the new blueprint Friday at the Grand River Raceway north of Guelph. All told, about $1-billion in financial support will be funneled to the industry over the five years, enough for 900 racing days annually. The total funding includes rent paid by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to racetracks that operate slot machines.
The new funding is part of a restructuring of the horse-racing industry.
“The fact is, what was in place before was not sustainable in the long-term,” Ms. Wynne said Friday, adding that over the five-year period, the racing industry will be integrated with the OLG and its gambling strategy. “We need to look at what are the other possibilities for revenue streams that will make the industry sustainable.”
Part of the change involves a shakeup of leadership at the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC), a government agency that manages and regulates the industry. The head of the ORC stepped down this week.
Rod Seiling, appointed chairman of the ORC in November, 2006, is leaving a year before his term expires in November, 2014.
Industry sources said the Premier felt it was time for a leadership change at the ORC, which will see its role diminished.
Ms. Wynne said Friday that Elmer Buchanan, a former provincial agriculture minister, will be nominated to replace Mr. Seiling.
The ORC will now be split in half, with its promotional and business development duties hived off into an organization separate from the regulator. The newly created Ontario Live Racing will perform the management functions.
Ms. Wynne announced a new funding deal on Friday that will give horse breeding associations greater control over their share of the money.
The deal is also part of the government’s attempt to quell some of the backlash that erupted in rural Ontario when the province killed a lucrative slot-machine revenue-sharing deal last year.
The program generated $4-billion for racetracks and just under $10-billion for provincial coffers since 1998. Its cancellation crippled the market for racehorses and squeezed jobs at tracks. Ms. Wynne on Friday disowned the Liberals’ previous decision to cancel that program.
“I thought this decision on this industry was not a good decision, that we needed a revision of that policy,” she said. “I think the industry is very important for rural Ontario and in Ontario we need a horse industry that is very strong.”
But she denied that her government was backpedaling purely to win the support of rural residents, who have largely turned their backs on the Liberals.
“For me, it’s not a question of votes, it’s a question of the industry, it’s a question of jobs, it’s an industry that is historic,” she said.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who opposed the Liberals’ killing of the slots-at-racetracks program, dismissed Ms. Wynne’s move as a purely political play ahead of an election widely expected next year.
“This reminds me of the solution of the arsonist who’s been asked to run the fire brigade,” he said. “[The Liberals] eliminated the slots at racetracks program and tossed 65,000 people out of jobs. Kathleen Wynne, now that she’s concerned about an election campaign, has discovered bags of money that she’s going to throw back to the industry.”
The total amount for the industry in Ms. Wynne’s five-year plan, which is based on a report from a panel of former cabinet ministers, will be less than in the previous program. The plan is expected also to introduce greater transparency and accountability for what is done with public funds in response to concerns that some tracks were not spending enough of the slots revenue on improving facilities and promoting the racing sector – two key goals of the slots-at-racetracks program.
The changes at the ORC follow a review by the government to determine the appropriate regulatory role for the agency. As well as approving the horse-racing calendar and officiating at all races, the ORC also conducts hearings on regulatory and policy matters.
“It has often been observed that a conflict occurs” where an agency both regulates and manages the industry, the Horse Racing Transition Panel said in its draft report released in June.