Members of Ontario's horse industry, including many at Innisfil's Georgian Downs, are worried that their jobs may be in jeopardy with the removal by the provincial government of the slots at racetracks agreement. The Ontario Harness Horse Association is considering legal action against the government.
Credits: IAN MCINROY/QMI AGENCY
INNISFIL, ON - The future of Ontario's horse racing industry is "absolutely going to die" within two years if the province breaks its funding agreement surrounding slots at racetracks, the general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association says.
"Right now, the horse industry is funded 100% by people who choose to gamble (whether slots or horse racing) at racetracks," Brian Tropea said. "The horse industry spends about $1 billion a year to generate that $340 million."
Tropea said lawyers for the OHHA are looking into "all legal options."
"A class-action lawsuit is definitely something our lawyers are looking at," he said Wednesday.
Members of the industry are fearful of the provincial government's plans to abolish the slots-at-racetracks agreement forged by former premier Mike Harris in the late-1990s.
It allowed slot machines into 18 racetracks that saw 10% of revenues going to the tracks, 10% to people in the horse industry, 5% to the host municipality and 75% going to the government.
Now the government - which has taken to calling the agreement a "subsidy" in recent months - wants 100% of the revenue.
Tropea is adamant the agreement has never been a subsidy and has, in fact, been a windfall for the government, to the tune of about $340 million last year.
Within days of an Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) strategic business review released in March, the corporation abruptly announced the closure of three slot operations at tracks in Windsor, Fort Erie and Sarnia, throwing more than 500 people out of work.
Other tracks will also see their slots closed unless they can come up with a way to keep them open, including private partnerships with the province.
"It's an unfortunate situation. We've had a very good relationship with the horse industry for a number of years," OLG spokesman Rui Brum said.
As part of its modernization plans announced in March, OLG established 29 ‘zones' in the province.
Each zone will be allowed one slots casino to be run by a private-sector operator and whichever operator wins the bidding process - after submitting a business case to OLG and its overseer, the Ministry of Finance - the will be able to set up shop where they please, assuming they have local municipal approval.
But even if slots do remain at some tracks, the horse industry is in dire straits, Tropea said.
"There will be no revenue coming to horse people from the new agreements," he said.
Horse owner Tony Tangereda, of Kettleby, has been in the business for 35 years.
He said there should've been more dialogue between the government and the industry before the decision to end the slots at racetracks agreement.
"It's terrible. (The government) should be happy with the money they've had. Now they're putting 50,000 people out of work who will have to collect welfare. They don't know anything but horse racing," he said.
"Without the slot machines there will be no way to survive. There will be no money coming in," he said, adding the small amount of money there will be won't be enough to attract horses to the track, let alone train and feed them.
"I normally keep 15 horses and now I'm down to seven. I'll decide where to go from there if there is no slot money coming in. I'm not going to keep horses if there's no money to race."