JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – A renewed focus on fans – not slots machines – is what will ultimately save Ontario’s struggling horse-racing industry, say members of a provincial government panel set up to help race tracks adapt to the new fiscal realities.
“The fact is what we need to do is get everybody’s focus back on what should drive the industry, which is the consumer,” said former Liberal cabinet minister John Wilkinson, one of three members of the provincial Horse-Racing industry transition panel who travelled to Fort Erie to officially announced there will be racing at 116-year-old border oval again this season.
“No consumers, no bettors, no industry – More consumers, more bettors, more industry.”
The panel was set up in the wake of the Liberal government’s decision in the spring of 2012 to end the slots-at-racetracks revenue-sharing program, which funneled some $345 million a year into the horse-racing industry.
The other two members of the transition panel are former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister John Snobelen and former NDP cabinet minister Elmer Buchanan.
Originally, the government had planned to shut off the funding cold turkey, but the NDP forced the minority Liberals into agreeing to provide transitional funding for the industry. A panel composed of three former cabinet ministers was set up to develop a transition plan and review applications for funding.
So far, nine race tracks, including Fort Erie, have signed transition funding deals. Six other tracks are still in discussions with the panel and the government.
The amount of funding Fort Erie Race Track is to receive this year remains confidential for now. Panel members and track officials have said those figures can’t be made public while negotiations with other tracks are completed.
The money Fort Erie will receive is enough, however, to give the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium the confidence to announce it plans to open on May 26 for a shortened, 50 day season. Last year, there were 78 days of live racing at Fort Erie.
Opposition parties have heavily criticized the government for its decision to cancel the slots-at-racetracks program.
In fact, a motion put forward in the Legislature on Thursday by the NDP urging the Liberals to continue the slots program until a better industry transition plan can be developed was passed in the Legislature with the support of Progressive Conservative party members. The motion is non-binding on the government, but it does carry moral and political weight as it is an expression of the will of the Legislature. It’s unclear how the Liberals will respond to the motion.
The motion would have no direct bearing on the Fort Erie Race Track since the province closed its slots facility there last April.
It its report to the government last fall, the transition panel concluded the slots-at-racetrack program was dysfunctional and a new way forward for the industry had to be found.
Its a message panel members repeated once again during Thursday’s press conference at the Fort Erie Race Track.
“What happened under the old system of slots at race tracks… was there was a disengagement between the money coming in and the bettor, because there was another source of money coming from the slots,” said Wilkinson.
“So our big picture advice is what do we need to do to get everybody on the team back to focusing on the consumer. And so what we’ve seen is there are great examples right around the world where that happens and there’s no reason with world-class product that (is horse-racing) in Ontario that we can’t all work together to make that happen.”