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Trainer Mark Casse is photographed Sept 7 2011 during morning workouts at Woodbine Racetrack. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Trainer Mark Casse is photographed Sept 7 2011 during morning workouts at Woodbine Racetrack. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario horse-racing industry gets two-year reprieve Add to ...

The Ontario government and the province’s premier horse racetrack have developed a short-term fix that will guarantee thoroughbred racing for two more years.

The good news: Racing kicks off at Woodbine Racetrack in April, the historic Queen’s Plate stakes race endures another year, and Ontario’s battered horse-racing industry can heave a sigh of relief.

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The bad news: Lower revenues from gambling and 30 fewer race days on the calendar mean “significant changes” are coming and new horse-racing fans must be wooed if Woodbine and other tracks are to survive after the two years run out.

Horse-industry insiders say they’ll take what they can get.

“I’ve already got probably 30 to 40 employees doing nothing, and now they’re going to start later,” said Mark Casse, one of Woodbine’s most successful trainers. “But hey, it’s better than nothing.”

The announcement on Thursday came almost a year after Ontario promised to slash a program that gave racetracks a percentage of revenues generated by slot machines on their premises. Dismayed racing officials predicted the industry’s collapse. Without the 15-year-old government program, which injected $345-million into the industry in 2011, Woodbine and other tracks would shutter. Without the racetracks, thoroughbred owners, trainers, breeders and support staff such as veterinarians would lose significant income, or head elsewhere in search of purses.

Under the new agreement, Woodbine and other racetracks still house slot machines owned by the province’s gambling arm, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. However, the tracks’ income will come from a fixed lease rather than the old system, which gave the racetracks a commission on lucrative slots revenues.

“The resources are going to be different,” Nick Eaves, president and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, said.

The deal also covers Mohawk Racetrack in Milton, which is also owned by WEG, the largest operator of horse racing in Canada.

Eaves promised “significant changes” to the company’s operating model, and added that “identifying new sources of revenue” is a priority. Asked if layoffs are expected, he declined to comment.

“This is the initial downsizing of the industry,” he added, referring to this year’s shortened season, which starts in mid-April instead of March, as usual.

Government and Woodbine officials refused to disclose the financial terms of the lease. “It would be like showing your hand in poker,” said Ted McMeekin, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, who is in charge of the file.

Similar deals are being finalized at other racetracks across the province, McMeekin added.

Casse, who is American and based in Florida, testified before a three-member panel hired by the government to sort out what to do about the floundering racing industry. He said the province doesn’t seem to understand what an economic boon the horse-racing industry is for Ontario.

He used his own operation – among the largest at Woodbine – as an example. On an average year, he houses 100 horses at Woodbine, rents an area farm, and spends at least $300,000 on hay and feed alone. He also spends between $3-million and $5-million annually purchasing Canadian-bred horses, he said.

“I just don’t think in the beginning they understood what it all means,” Casse added. “Between employees, their children, their families, and people like blacksmiths and veterinarians, the people that grow hay … our business affects about 200 people’s lives. And that’s just us.”

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