There’s not much in terms of details about what the province’s three biggest political parties will offer the horse racing industry, but the good news is the Progressive Conservatives, New Democratic Party and Liberals all have pledged some measure of support for horse racing with a June 7 Ontario election looming.

“None of the parties have given a lot of detail on what their plans would be, but we’re very hopeful because all three parties seem to be very supportive of the horse racing industry in general and have been speaking supportively,” said Jessica Buckley, president of Woodbine Mohawk Park, the standardbred track in the Woodbine Entertainment Group family.

Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society Ontario president Peter Berringer said, “We are willing to work with any party that gets elected and will work hard to represent the breeders and the entire horse racing industry.”

SARP Reinstated?

The NDP’s official platform indicates leader “Andrea Horwath and the NDP will work with rural communities, tracks, municipalities and horse families to undo the damage caused by the Liberals’ reckless decision to cut the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP), and build a long-term plan to revitalize this sector and protect the livelihood of these family farms.”

There has been no official commentary from the PC party, but reporter Allison Smith of Queen’s Park Today tweeted “Doug Ford says a PC government would bring back the slots-at-racetrack program dumped by Dalton McGuinty. Ford says he is a big supporter of the horse racing industry: ‘Everyone’s going to have fun today, going to the track.’”

Now that slot operations at Ontario’s racetracks are being operated by private casino operators, it seems unlikely SARP will return as it was previously crafted with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation (OLG) running the show and sharing a percentage of slot revenue with the horse racing industry.

In an email, Tony Bitonti, the senior manager, media relations for the OLG, confirmed “private sector service providers have assumed responsibility for the day-to-day operations of all gaming sites with the exception of OLG Slots at Georgian Downs which will transition to Gateway this summer.”

However, Ford was quoted in a story in Wednesday’s Fort Erie Post written by James Culic as saying he would put slot machines back in Fort Erie Racetrack if the PC party forms the next government.

“We’re going to get those slots back there,” Ford said at a campaign stop in Port Colborne on Tuesday. “I’m a big supporter of the horse-racing industry — in fact, the biggest track in the country, Woodbine, is right in my riding.”

Commitment to Long-Term Funding

Berringer said Ford’s advice to him was for the horse racing industry not to sign anything, which is believed to be a reference to the Liberal government’s long-term funding deal that promises “up to” $105 million in funding to the industry annually for as long as the next 19 years. Though most parties have signed on to the deal, the CTHS, Ontario Harness Horse Association, Kawartha Downs and the horsepeople at Leamington Raceway have not.

Buckley said Woodbine Racetrack is, in fact, “in the heart of Ford Nation here in North Etobicoke. There’s a lot of our core people and a lot of our employees live in this area, so (Ford has) always been very supportive of the business and the jobs that it provides, which is great.”

“Getting the long-term funding deal signed before the election was really important so that we had that long-term certainty and then,” said Buckley. “Whichever party is in power after the election, we’re looking forward to working with them on all those details.”

The Liberal party is currently trailing in the polls among the three big parties, but should it win another term, they have indicated they will continue to support the long-term funding deal.

“Ontario Liberals are committed to a long-term funding agreement with the horse racing sector, supporting jobs in rural Ontario and strengthening local economies across the province,” wrote Clancy Zeifman a member of the Ontario Liberal Party’s media team in an email. “That commitment includes providing $1.9 billion, or $105 million a year for 19 years, for the horse racing sector. In addition, Ontario Liberals are also providing additional supports for smaller racetracks and those that are experiencing financial shortfalls. We are continuing support for the Enhanced Horse Improvement Program and have introduced a new Racetrack Sustainability Innovation Fund that provides up to $6 million to help regional racetracks expand revenue sources and ensure that they can stay sustainable moving forward.”

Buckley said all of that is potentially good for horse racing, “I think it’s positive that all three parties recognize (horse racing’s) economic contribution and what it means to the province. So, let’s hope that racing is in good shape following the election, because we’ve got this long-term deal signed and that will give us some certainty and then we’ll just work through some of the details with whichever party we need to.

“I think we’re still going to have to work hard and there are a lot of details to be worked out, of course. They are going to have a list of priorities, but I think we’re hopefully going to be in good shape.”