JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – There are times when size matters.
And in the mind of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, the province’s horse-racing industry needs to shrink if it’s to have a future.
“In order for (the industry) to be sustainable, it’s going to have to be smaller,” Wynne told media from Niagara and Hamilton during a conference call Thursday afternoon.
During the half and hour long call, Wynne answered questions on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the future of the Fort Erie Race Track and job creation to a controversial recommendation by Niagara Health System supervisor Kevin Smith to build a new hospital for south Niagara.
Wynne, who was sworn in earlier this week, retained the role of agricultural minister for herself in her new government. She said she plans to hold the portfolio for one year, during which time she wants to tackle head on a number of issues, including transition of the horse-racing industry to a more sustainable model of funding as well as building up and promoting Ontario’s agri-food industry – the province’s second largest sector.
Downsizing the horse-racing industry will put it on a more sustainable path, said Wynne. While she has yet to meet with the provincially appointed transition panel overseeing that transformation, she plans to do so in the near future.
The downsizing of the 60,000-member strong horse-racing industry, which is built around 17 race tracks across the province, has already begun.
On Wednesday, Woodbine Entertainment Group announced it’s cutting 109 salaried positions and a “significant number” of hourly positions a restructuring of its operating model.
The company says the cuts are due to the fact Woodbine will receive less in transitional funding from Ontario government than it did through the previous slots-at-racetracks revenue sharing program, which the Liberals decided to kill as part of deficit busting measures in last year’s provincial budget.
“Today is a very difficult day for Woodbine Entertainment Group,” Nick Eaves, president and chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, said in a statement.
“The people we are saying goodbye to have helped build WEG into a world-class horse-racing and entertainment company. As we confront these difficult but -necessary changes to our company, we remain committed to delivering a superior experience to our customers and demonstrating vital leadership to the Ontario horse racing industry to ensure its long-term sustainability.”
In addition to layoffs, a number of jobs will be converted to seasonal and the amount of hourly work available will be reduced, Eaves said.
“This restructuring of our operations is absolutely necessary to ensure the viability of our business during this period of transition,” said WEG Chairman Jim Lawson. “WEG and its government partners must continue to work together in order to achieve the only sustainable solution – the integration of horse racing into Ontario’s overall gaming strategy, which needs to include expanded gaming, operated by WEG, at Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks.”
Exactly how much money Woodbine will receive from the government no one is saying. The government apparently doesn’t want to make those figures public until after it has concliuded negotiations with all of the track operators.
Woodbine is the senior, or ‘A’ track of Ontario’s two thoroughbred racing facilities.
Fort Erie Race Track, which is considered a ‘B’ level track, is still waiting receive an answer to its application for transitional funding.
Without transitional help, the 115-year-old border oval may not open for racing this coming season.
The future of the Fort Erie Race Track and the entire industry was thrown into jeopardy last spring when the province announced the cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks revenue sharing system, which had been helping to fund racing operations since the late 1990s.
As a result of pressure from the industry, public and opposition New Democrats, the province later appointed a transition panel to chart a course for the industry and to determine how to fund the industry during a period of transition to a self-supporting model.
The Fort Erie Race Track is one of the largest employers in that town and an important part of the municipalities history and culture.
Local politicians say the permanent closure of the race track would have a devastating impact on the town and its economy.
Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, said Thursday there have been no direct negotiations with Fort Erie about funding so far and he’s not sure when they will take place.
“The sense we get and the advice we get is ‘Be patient – it’s coming’,” Thibert told Bullet News. “So we’re patiently waiting. It’s the only thing we can do.”
Waiting is not easy though. It’s an anxious time for people in the industry, who, with racing season fast approaching, need to know what’s going on in order to make informed decisions.
The Consortium has tried to do what it could in the past to let people know as early as possible what the deal was going to be for the next year, said Thibert, adding it’s “not fair” that stakeholders and fans are left on the hook without answers for so long.
Ontario’s NDP issued a statement Thursday laying blame job losses at Woodbine at the feet of the Liberal government.
“Once again, we’re reminded just how short sighted the (slots-at-racetracks program) cancellation really was,” said NDP Labour critic and Essex MPP Taras Natyshak.
“By pulling the rug out from under the folks at Woodbine, the government has dealt a serious blow to a historic entertainment venue, and cost many hard working Ontarians their jobs.”
He continued: “The Slots At Racetrack Program was a great investment for Ontario. In addition to directing millions of dollars into public coffers, it fostered a vibrant, healthy horse-racing industry. By cancelling the program, not only is the government walking away from a sustainable revenue stream – they are turning their back on thousands of hard working Ontarians.”
In order to receive provincial transition funding, racetracks have to meet accountability and transparency requirements.
Providing a number of racetracks with transition funding is part of the government’s horse racing industry transition plan, which includes:
- continuing the Horse Improvement Program;
- providing animal welfare supports;
- transferring responsibility for the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.