A three-person panel reporting to the Ontario government believes a sustainable horse racing industry is possible — even without the Slots at Racetracks Program. The panel suggests, for starters, cutting the number of live race dates in half, to 800.
"It's a significant reduction in both race days and purse monies for the standardbred industry, and it's so significant that I really can't see the industry surviving the recommendations," said Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association.
In its report, the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel said it, “could not find a single example of a viable horse racing industry without some form of public support.
“Even so, the panel found it would be a mistake to reinstate [the Slots at Racetracks Program].”
Instead, the panel suggests the industry become “more customer-driven by basing all purse money on the industry’s share of pari-mutuel wagering.”
"When they were originally put together they had a mandate to figure out how to spend up to $50 million over three years to transition the industry," Tropea said of the panel. "They got further down the path than that and developed a model they thought would work to sustain the industry. Really, what it does is prolongs the death of the industry."
The province ended the slots program earlier this year, a move horse racers and breeders said would kill the industry.
According the report, more than 60 per cent of purse money awarded in Ontario came from the slots program.
To offset those losses, the panel recommends the number of live race dates be slashed in almost half to approximately 800 annually across the province.
The panel claims “substantial purses will be maintained.”
The panel doesn’t rule out government support of the industry, however.
First, in August, it found the $50 million the government planned to spend during the next three years in an effort to transition to a sustainable future is “insufficient.” However, it makes no recommendation of how much is sufficient.
It also said tracks will require government investment in their operations.
Another recommendation is the creation of additional streams of gaming revenue at tracks.
Options include a racing-specific lottery; sports books which include single-event sports betting if that’s approved by Ottawa; and a new pari-mutuel game called “historical horse racing” which involves betting through an electronic terminal on the outcome of past races, which are not identified to the player.
“These new products could potentially generate revenue that could be used to offset the need for direct public funding,” the panel said.
The report estimates that if racetracks were given a monopoly on sports books the industry could net $50 million annually.
The panel suggests that the minimum number of tracks required to allow the industry to survive is six.
"I am pleased to see that a group of racetracks and key organizations within the industry have already indicated a willingness to work within these principles, and I welcome further interest," Minister of Agriculture Ted McMeekin wrote in an emailed media release.
Windsor-West Liberal MPP, Teresa Piruzza, said the report and recommendations are the first step to helping the horse racing industry survive.
"The public investment that was taking place in that industry wasn't necessarily in the right model or right structure to ensure the sustainability of the model," she said. "We'll need a level of public investment to maintain that support and to keep that going forward and that's certainly what we intend to keep doing."