JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – Having got no satisfaction from his own government, Niagara Falls Liberal MPP Kim Craitor says he’ll turn hat in hand to Ontario’s opposition parties to help save the Fort Erie Race Track.
During a press conference Wednesday, Craitor said he’ll ask the Progressive Conservatives and NDP to try to help him convince the government appointed panel charged with charted a new course for the horse racing industry to revise a recommendation that at best would see the number of race days for B Class thoroughbreds next year reduced to 30 from the current 78 offered in Fort Erie this season.
The same panel – made up of three former Ontario cabinet ministers, one from each of the three main political parties – suggested moving races from Fort Erie to Ajax Downs raceway, should the track close permanently at the end of the year.
“I was absolutely shocked,” said Craitor. “This is not what I expected.”
While he agree with many of the recommendations contained in the report by the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel released Tuesday, Craitor was blunt about his opinion of the recommendations concerning the 155-year-old border oval, one of Fort Erie’s largest employers.
“The report screwed up. It screwed up when it talked about Fort Erie,” said Craitor.
Craitor says not only should Fort Erie be allowed the same 78 days of thoroughbred racing hosted by the track this year, Fort Erie should be given a bigger slice of the dates for quarter horse racing.
Quarter horse racing is offered primarily at Ajax, with a limited number of races being offered at Fort Erie for the past three years.
“The quarter horse industry belongs in Fort Erie,” said an emotional Craitor. “It doesn’t belong at a track (Ajax) that isn’t even a race track.”
Joining Craitor at the press conference were Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin and Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium chief executive officer Jim Thibert, along with other representatives of the track and its employees.
Race Track officials say they could live with 30 days of live thoroughbred racing, provided they are allowed to host 30 days of quarter horse racing.
The town and Consortium are currently courting at least one offer from an undisclosed investor they hope will purchase the track and develop the property, while still allowing the not-for-profit Consortium to operate the track itself.
Thibert said the Consortium will be asking the transition panel for some funding, but he couldn’t say exactly how much because there would need to be some negotiations.
The transition panel was set up this year to deal with the fallout of the provincial government’s decision to pull the plug on the lucrative slots-at-racetracks funding program.
The program was set up in the late 1990s during the tenure of the government of former PC premier Mike Harris. Slot machines at horse racing tracks were seen as a new source of revenue from the province and also a way of helping out the horse-racing industry in the face of competition from commercial casinos and other forms of gambling.
The government permanently closed three slot facilities at race tracks in Fort Erie, Windsor and Sarnia on April 30. Ontario plans to privatize the remaining facilities as Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation continues rolling out its so-called modernization plan, which also includes plan for a Toronto casino.
Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan have repeatedly defended the decision to kill the racetrack slots program, saying the money is needed to protect health and education funding during a time when other government programs are being cut in order to eliminate the provincial deficit by 2017-18.
Critics, however, say the government is making a huge mistake, putting as many as 60,000 jobs at risk and dealing a potentially fatal blow to the horse racing and breeding industries in Ontario.
With news that McGuinty plans to step down once a new leader of the Liberal party is chosen in late January, no one is quite sure whether this government policy will survive the transfer or an election that could come as early as this spring.