JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor reached out to Ontario’s opposition parties for help to save the Fort Erie Erie Race Track.
But the independent-minded Liberal MPP has had his hand slapped back by the Progressive Conservatives, who say it’s Craitor and his Grit colleagues who created the “mess” that threatens the very future of the 115-year-old border oval and tens of thousands of horse-racing jobs across the province.
“I’m actually outraged by (Craitor) doing this,” Monte McNaughton, PC MPP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, told Bullet News.
“The Liberals including Kim Craitor caused this mess. They’re the absolute reason why the Fort Erie Race Track is closing.”
On Wednesday, Craitor joined Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin and Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium chief executive officer Jim Thibert for a press conference at the track to provide their response to recommendations contained in a report by a government-appointed panel considering transitional support for the racing industry.
The panel’s report was made public by Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin on Tuesday.
Among its many recommendations, the panel has suggested cutting the number of live racing days for B-class thoroughbreds to 30 from the 78 days run this past 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,” Craitor said of the panel’s report. “This is not what I expected.”
While he agrees 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.”
The transition panel was set up earlier 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.
That 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, including McNaughton, 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.
Craitor says he plans to talk to the NDP and PC leadership, hoping to convince them to join him in urging the panel reverse its recommendations with respect to Fort Erie.
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 the government’s new racetrack policy or the panel’s recommendations will survive the transfer of power or an election that could come as early as this spring.
McNaughton says Craitor’s decision to seek help from the NDP and Tories at this late stage is particularly galling given McGuinty’s decision to shut down the Legislature early, sending MPPs home until sometime after a leadership contest.
“Obviously, Kim Craitor doesn’t count inside his own party and doesn’t have a voice,” said McNaughton.
“But for Kim Craitor to ask for out help after the Legislature has been closed is an absolute disgrace,” said McNaughton.
Meanwhile, the NDP also criticized the Liberals in the wake of the transition panel report.
“The report makes it quite clear that the Liberal government was wrong in its decision to leave the horse racing industry out in the cold,” said Taras Natyshak, NDP MPP for Essex, said in a statement
“With a swipe of a pen and without any consultation, the government cancelled a revenue generating program without providing an alternative to the industry,” said Natyshak.
“It showed complete disregard for the people employed in the industry. This report makes it clear that the horse racing industry needs some sort of public support to survive and transform.”
He continued: “It is a pity that the horse racing industry has had to waste a year fighting for their right to exist when the government could have been working and consulting with them on future steps for the industry.”