Written by: Katie Lamb

Learn more about Ontario Racing, a newly-formed horse racing industry group and its new long-term funding framework for horse racing in the province.

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“You’re talking to the converted” was the answer from Rob Cook, executive director Ontario Racing, when fielding a concern about the future of commercially breeding thoroughbreds in the province. It is a worry shared by local quarter horse and standardbred breeders, too. They need insurance that horse racing will have a future in the province.

Those words come two months after local breeders weathered yet another dismal thoroughbred yearling auction, which saw all results dip lower than 2015, with average and median prices down, as well as the number of horses offered and the number of horses sold. That decline, in addition to the critical horse shortage across North America, has sent Ontario racing deeper into an existential crisis that peaked four years ago with the cancellation of the Slots at Racetrack Program (SARP).

Cook was in Toronto on Oct. 31 answering questions on behalf of Ontario Racing (OR), a newly-formed horse racing industry group and its new long-term funding framework for horse racing in the province. The town hall-style meeting was part of OR’s ongoing industry consultation process, after the organization announced that it plans to lobby the provincial government to dish out roughly $1.6 billion to further provide all three breeds stability for the future.

If approved by cabinet, the subsidy will be added on top of the $700 million Kathleen Wynne has pledged to the racing industry until 2021, with payments of $93.4 million continuing for 17 more years until 2038.

OR launched last April with a number of ad campaigns, sponsored by Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG), including a 60-second spot depicting racing fans riding the horse they wagered on in a race with the tagline: “You’re not the owner, trainer, breeder or jockey, but for a few glorious moments, it’s your horse.”

On first blush, OR looked like a marketing initiative of the OLG, but according to its website, OR is “responsible for directing breed improvement programs, setting an annual program of races and purses, attracting new horse owners, building a fan base and connecting the industry with government and the general public.”

In fact, OR is an industry association conceived on the recommendation of the final report called “Five-Year Partnership Plan for Ontario horse racing” penned by John Snobelen, John Wilkinson and Elmer Buchanan, three former cabinet ministers hired to advise the Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture in the wake of the cancellation of SARP.

Cook said that at the time the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) was slated to be decommissioned, an interim governance committee was formed which included Snobelen; Sue Leslie, the president of both the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA); Michael Keegan, former chief of staff to the Minister of Agriculture and Greg Walling, who was hired as a special advisor to the agriculture minister, Jeff Leal. Together, they felt a new body needed to be established to replace OHRIA to both represent the interests of the industry and to oversee the programs that were developed by the ORC.

OR, which has a staff of 10 people including Cook, reports to the organization’s membership: an eight-member board of governors made up of representatives from various industry associations. Those members include: Sue Leslie (OR and HBPA), Glenn Sikura (Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society), Walter Parkinson (Standardbred Breeders Association of Ontario), Jim Lawson (CEO Woodbine Entertainment), Bruce Barbour (Flamboro Raceway), Ted Clarke (Grand River Raceway) and Bob Broadstock (Quarter Racing Owners of Ontario).

“The mandate is broader,” said Cook, who comes to the role with more than 30 years of experience leading industry associations. “Our approach is we listen to anyone and we try and reflect the general views of the industry, to the extent they don’t conflict with the people on the board of directors and the organizations they represent.”

This begs the question: If the make-up of OR’s board is exactly the same as ORHIA, then why the new organization? When Cook was hired in July, the board was made up of the three founding members: Snobelen, Keegan, and Leslie, but he felt that for OR to engage in events like town-halls and information sessions, there needed to be a broader range of stakeholders represented on OR’s board. To move ahead with those consultations more quickly, Cook said OHRIA was “readily available and was scheduled to disappear in December,” so it made utilizing the existing of the board of OHRIA on an interim basis easy while consultations across Ontario continue.

But, he said, expect some changes in the new year. “We already know with the ORHIA group aside, where there’s some shortfalls,” said Cook, including a representative from a small track, such as Fort Erie. “So I think over time the governance process will look at who should be on the board —the big who— what interests should be there, and then it will be a big question of who the individuals and organizations, if that’s the choice—it doesn’t have to be organizations— who are the people going to populate those decisions.”

In order for racetracks to receive funding from OR, they must join a racetrack alliance: a collective of currently-operating live racing venues that work together to set race dates and purses. All racetracks that conduct live racing are invited to join the alliance, but must agree to be governed by a not-for-profit organization in conjunction with Woodbine Entertainment Group.

According to Ontario Racing’s new funding framework, of the $1.6 billon they’re asking from the government, they’ve deemed 87 per cent ($71 million of the $93.4 million each year until 2038) to purses.
The funding would also facilitate a complete Horse Improvement Program (HIP) review in the first quarter of 2017, said Cooke. Earlier this year, Woodbine Entertainment Group, to address the horse shortage and fill races, unilaterally decided to eliminate some of the restricted conditions for Ontario-sired horses, without much prior consultation with the horsepeople.

Currently, the thoroughbred portion of HIP is contracted out to the CTHS, while Ontario Racing administers the standardbred and quarter horse portion in house.

Cook said, if funding is secured, OR will focus on “fairly fundamental questions” about HIP: “Is it meeting the purposes it was set out? Are we administering it the most effective and efficient way? Part of that, on the thoroughbred side, may have some implications on what did happen at Woodbine.

“At the end of the day, it’s got to work for everybody, and you have to consult with everybody. Whether the decision is for everybody, you have to at least consult with everybody.”

All of this hinges on Ontario Racing receiving the money. Cook is confident the government will move forward with the plan, but he warns that too much in-fighting could give government enough reason to walk away.

“I think if the industry is supportive of this conceptually, I think there’s a reasonably good chance government would follow through and deliver on it,” he said. “The risk we run is… clearly this industry has a long history of difficulty in collaborating, lots of different interests, and government never likes noise like that, so the more noise around stuff, the more I’m worried that you run the risk that someone goes,” Cook said, stopping to raise his hands.