Napanee Guide - Trainer worries for future of horse racing

Published on March 28th, 2012 in the Napanee Guide

Kevin Benn stands in the stall-lined aisle of his barn just east of Napanee. In the background his brother Barry grooms and harnesses one of the 17 standardbred horses that the brothers train and race at tracks across Ontario, preparing for a training session out on the farm's on-site training track.

"I pictured myself racing horses into my 70s, but if they shut the tracks all down it will be the end of horse racing as I know it," says Kevin Benn.

The Benn brothers are just two of the 60,000 people working in the Ontario horse racing industry who are at risk of losing their livelihood, after the Ontario Liberal government announced that by 2013 they will pull out slot machines installed at race tracks across the province, an action that has already destabilized this billion-dollar industry and could make Ontario horse racing unsustainable.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's (OLG) introduction of slot machines more than a decade ago breathed new life into the struggling industry in the late 1990s, with a profit-sharing deal that gave 10 per cent of revenue to racetracks, and 10 per cent to horse owners and trainers through purses.

"It's really helped horse racing, and brought our purse money up to where you could make a living at it," says Benn, who explains that the 150-year-old tradition of racing horses has had a rough time as other gambling venues continue to draw crowds away from the traditional horse bet.

"We've been pretty hard hit by all the gambling there is today, with online poker, and you can go to Vegas for free almost. There are so many other venues that there weren't 20 years ago. Before, unless you raced in Toronto, it was hard to make a living for what the purses were going for. The slots gave Ontario horse racing a breath of fresh air and got people wanting to invest in horses."

According to a fact sheet released by the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, racetrack slot machines have generated $1.1 billion of revenue for the OLG, making up nearly 60 per cent of the $1.9 billion that the OLG provides to the Ontario government each year for education and health care. Those numbers leave industry professionals angry at the seemingly misguided attempt to fix something that's not broken.

At a press conference at Queen's Park on March 12, Ontario finance minister Dwight Duncan said that the OLG's new business strategy - which not only involves the removal of slot machines at race tracks but also a number of closures in other locations, the construction of a casino in the GTA, and a new online platform for Ontario gambling - will fit nicely into the McGuinty government's mandate to "build a strong economy that creates jobs."

"With its new business strategy the OLG will increase its revenues by more than $1 billion a year," said Duncan to reporters. "It will also create 2,300 new jobs in the gaming industry, and nearly 4,000 additional jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors by 2017."

Shaun Finucane is a veterinarian whose practice is 90 per cent race horses. He is based in Napanee and serves many racing professionals in eastern Ontario, including looking after the Benns' horses.

"I feel that the Liberal government doesn't realize how far-reaching this reduction in slots at racetracks is," says Finucane. "Over 60,000 people work full time and part time in the horse racing industry. I'm just puzzled by what they expect to gain by moving this program. It's reckless and shortsighted."

Another consequence of pulling this financial rug out from under horse racing is that the value of quality racehorses will drop, and people will no longer have the means or the incentive to keep or care for them.

"It's my understanding that there's approximately 30,000 racehorses in Ontario, and the sad aspect of this reduction in the program would be that the majority of these horses could potentially be put down or sent to slaughter," says Finucane. "If they change this program and we're only left with a few high level tracks unfortunately the lower level Standardbreds will be worthless. I don't think the liberal government is aware of that aspect."

Randy Hillier, MPP for Lennox & Addington County, says he has spoken to numerous people in his riding who are involved with all aspects of the industry. He feels that the decision is not only misguided but also misrepresented by OLG and government officials.

"What I find most despicable about this is the language of the Liberal government," says Hillier. "They say that they have been subsidizing horse racing, and that is an unmitigated lie. This is a revenue sharing agreement. Here we have a contractual arrangement between the racetracks and OLG, and it's been pretty lucrative for the government, over $1 billion a year. Where's that billion-dollar shortfall going to come from?"

Hillier isn't too optimistic that the McGuinty government will bring this issue back to the table for reconsideration.

"We can look into the crystal ball or we can wait until tomorrow," Hillier said on Monday, and mentioning the provincial budget will be coming down on Tuesday. "I think they may offer some crumbs to a few tracks in tomorrow's budget but judging by the type of language they use, when you're promoting nothing but an unmitigated lie and calling this a subsidy, that doesn't sound to me like they're extending an olive branch."

Horse racing industry workers have not been silent. On Monday more than 1,500 converged on Queen's Park in one of several protests since the announcement. The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association has set up a website, www.value4money.ca, with information about the benefits of having a horse racing industry in Ontario, and highlighting the rural economic support that race horse owners and trainers inject into their communities.

"I buy my feed, hay, bedding locally, I have a local vet, I buy horse shoes and tack from Wilton Tack, my trucks are leased bought locally and serviced, my horse trailers are safetied here," says Benn. "Any money we get is pumped right back into the economy in Napanee and the surrounding area."

While they hope for a change in the future, all Benn and others like him can do is to continue working at what they do, and hope that their livelihoods will be in place for the foreseeable future.

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