JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton is criticizing Premier Kathleen Wynne’s handling of the horse-racing file so far, saying the government has left thousands of people waiting to find out what’s going to happen this year.
Last week, the government announced transition funding for four more race tracks.
But eight of 14 tracks- including the historic Fort Erie Race Track – ,do not have agreements and there are no scheduled races for the 2013 Ontario horse-racing season.
“We’re into the second week of March and the government is only now starting to realize the crisis that they have created in rural Ontario,” McNaughton said Monday.
“At this point top trainers would normally have their entire season planned out, but here in Ontario they don’t have any race dates, any purse amounts or any other details.
“Despite what the Premier says, the 2013 Calendar of Ontario race days as approved by the Ontario Racing Commission says otherwise. There is not a single race scheduled for the 2013 season. Not one.”
On Friday, Wynne, who is serving as her own minister of agriculture, announced tentative agreements with Western Fair, Clinton, Hanover and Grand River race tracks.
The announcement was made during a media-only event held at the Grand River race track, in Elora.
During the announcement, Wynne said the Liberal government – which last spring pulled the plug on the lucrative slots-at-racetracks funding formula – is committed to supporting a sustainable industry.
“We’ve already made great progress with an agreement-in-principle with the province’s largest horse racing organization so that racing continues at Woodbine and Mohawk,” Wynne said.
“We continue to work on transition funding agreements with other tracks while we work with the sector on a new market-driven model that works for the industry and is good public policy.”
The agreements reached with the four tracks comes through a transition funding program put in place last fall, to help race tracks adapt to the financial reality that came with the loss of slots funding.
“Today’s announcement sends the right signal of hope and confidence about the future of the horse racing industry in Ontario,” said Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association.
The Fort Erie Race Track, one of only two thoroughbred race tracks in Ontario and home to the second jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown, has applied for transitional funding, but has yet to receive word one way or the other from the panel.
Sources say direct negotiations with Fort Erie are imminent.
“We are very close,” Niagara Falls Liberal MPP Kim Craitor told Bullet News Friday.
Once Fort Erie hears back from the panel, it’ll be up to the board of directors of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium to determine whether the deal being offered is enough to commit to opening for a 2013 racing season.
The Fort Erie Race Track opened in 1897. It’s one of the most historic tracks in North America and one of the largest employers in south Niagara.
McNaughton said it must be remembered that the current situation is one created by the Liberals.
“The recent announcements are nothing more than a glorified farm-day field trip for our part-time Agriculture Minister,” said McNaughton. “The only problem is that her government caused this problem to begin with. Had her government not decided to walk away from the successful slots at racetrack program, then she wouldn’t need to be handing out subsidies, feeding horses and taking pictures.”