JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – Will incoming premier Kathleen Wynne prove to be a friend to Ontario’s horse-racing industry?
That’s yet to be seen, but at the very least, some people industry see her victory in last week’s Liberal leadership contest as an opportunity to work with the government to chart a new course.
In a letter sent to industry stakeholders, Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, expressed optimism at the possibility of working with Wynne, who has said she will personally hold the position of minister of agriculture and rural affairs in her own cabinet.
“Overall, in my opinion, Kathleen Wynne as premier presents our industry with an opportunity to develop a long term, sustainable plan for the horse racing and breeding industry in Ontario,” wrote Leslie.
“The Liberal leadership election process has been a net positive for our industry. In Kathleen Wynne, we may find we have a willing partner in the Premier’s office, in addition to the support of key endorsers, whose help made her victory possible.”
Last year, the Liberal government of Premier Dalton McGuinty threw the future of the horse-racing industry into considerable doubt when it was announced the government planned to end the slots-at-racetracks revenue-sharing program at the end of March 2013.
Last April, OLG shuttered three provincially operated slots facilities at race tracks in Fort Erie, Windsor and Sarnia.
It had been predicted that as many as 11 of the 17 horse tracks in Ontario could close if nothing was done to assist the industry.
Under pressure from the NDP, the minority Liberals eventually agreed to set up a transition panel, to provide recommendation on how to reorganize the industry and to allocate an unspecified amount of funding for tracks that comply with new standards of accountability and transparency.
Several tracks have already come to agreements with the transition panel.
Officials at the Fort Erie Race Track are still waiting a response to their application.
Without transitional help, the 115-year-old border oval may not open for racing this coming season.
As many as 60,000 jobs depend on horse-racing in Ontario.
Wynne has said she wants to work with the transition panel to ensure a future for the industry.
“I certainly don’t see a future where we don’t have a horse racing industry in the province,” Wynne told the Goderich Signal Star newspaper during an interview in early January while she was still seeking the party’s top job.
“I will be working closely with the sector to make sure we get there.”
Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, said Wynne is a “capable and competent” choice for leader and he’s looking forward to seeing how she approaches the task of building bridges to the horse-racing community.
Thibert said he is already impressed by her stated intention reach outside of the the traditional Liberal stronghold in the GTA to better understand issues affecting the rest of the province.
For example, Thibert, who is originally from Northern Ontario, said Wynne’s intention to hold a cabinet meeting there in the future is a smart move.
Her decision to serve as agriculture and rural affairs minister is a sign she wants to have a direct connection to small town Ontario.
Thibert said it’s important to give Wynne the benefit of the doubt while she settles into her new role and starts setting the priorities of the new government.
“Ontario, like everyone else is in a tough financial situation right now,” said Thibert. “We need to give her time and we need to give her an opportunity.”
Niagara Falls Liberal MPP Kim Craitor said the Fort Erie Race Track is one of the main issues he will raise with Wynne when he has an opportunity to meet one-on-one with the new premier in the coming days.
He’ll emphasis his belief that although it was clear the horse-racing industry needed to change if it is to survive and thrive, the decision to cut off funding to tracks cold turkey was the wrong approach to take.
“I think we went too far, too fast,” he said.