By Francis Baker
“I’ve known nothing else but the race industry – how am I going to do anything else?”
“Twenty-five hundreds jobs in a mega casino in Toronto is going to do nothing for us in rural areas.”
“Government can’t do anything quickly … but they’ve made this decision to kill a whole industry in three months?”
It’s comments like that – and personal stories about the future of the horse racing industry – that county Warden Chris White was hoping to gather from a meeting on the racing industry last week.
About 200 people came out for the May 29 meeting at Wellington Place – representatives of local and county councils, municipal groups, horse farmers, breeders, riding schools, the racing industry and related associations.
Most had the same message: dissolving the Slots at Racetracks partnership as the province decided earlier this year, will devastate the lives and businesses of hundreds of people in this area.
The program turns a small percentage of Slots revenue to the racing industry, which has been using most of it to boost purses for races. Bigger, consistent purses have made it more attractive to get into breeding horses for racing, and as one speaker put it, areas around racetracks like central Wellington County have become “Meccas” of horse racing.
Now all that is threatened by the province’s plan to “modernize” gaming, announced in conjunction with the spring provincial budget. The plan would focus all gaming at one location in each of 29 gaming zones, where new investors would build large casino-convention centre complexes, sharing gaming revenue with the province.
Both the Slots at Racetracks program and the revenue-sharing agreement between OLG and municipalities hosting Slots would end.
It’s being assumed that these new casinos will be built in urban areas and high-traffic tourist areas to maximize their revenue-generating potential.
That scenario suggests the Slots portion of Grand River Raceway will shut down and move out sometime after next spring when the program ends, and the horse racing industry will drop into the same or worse decline as it was going through in the early 2000s before Slots at Racetracks was put in place.
The government’s announcements have already affected the industry, according to those at last week’s meeting.
Without good purses for winning horses, raising a race horse is no longer a good investment, and breeders now are already backing off from making that investment in time and money to raise horses.
There has been speculation of breeders euthanizing young horses rather than going through the expense of raising them with an uncertain market in the future; others suggest good breeding stock will simply go to New York State and other areas where horse racing is still flourishing.
That’s what happened when the racing industry collapsed in Michigan several years ago, one woman told the group. There, it was something people had seen coming for years, and she and her husband decided to continue with racing and move to Elora, to a thriving racing industry near a flourishing track.
Now, the government that helped create that flourishing industry is going to destroy it, she said.
“My husband is 40 … What’s he going to do? Is he supposed to change his whole life and get retrained?” she asked.
Another woman, who has built a $3 million horse training and billeting stable that employs almost 100 people, said she’s expecting to lose as much as half her business by this fall.
In 2002 at the start of the Slots initiative she sold her other business and bought the horse farm, put her savings into it, and developed it into a successful business.
“But if it goes as the trainers have predicted, I will be broke and unemployed at 58,” she said.
It’s those kinds of personal comments the meeting was intended to gather.
The county is putting together a report on the local impact of the provincial decision, as the central point in a lobbying effort, aiming to educate the province on the real effects of the new gaming plan.
The province underestimated the economic impact of ending the Slots at Racetrack partnership – how the decision will affect equipment dealers, trainers, veterinarians, and a host of area businesses like mechanics, vehicle dealers, restaurants and retail shops whose customers are people drawn here by the racing industry.
“That homework wasn’t done,” White said of that “ripple effect” of economic losses.
“We need to tell the stories of hard-working folks who are going to be affected by this,” he said.
He hopes those personal stories will give more weight to the financial and economic side of the lobbying effort.
And the economic impact of the racing industry is huge, Dr. Bob Wright told the group. A retired veterinarian, he presented highlights of more than 20 years of research into the equine industry – some of it done as part of the original startup plans for the Slots program.
His figures show sharing Slots revenue with racing has revitalized what was a declining industry and generated a huge economic return.
Across the province, people in the horse industry spend $675 million annually on horses and fixed assets like trailers and land; they spend $199 million on hay and grains.
He believes the equine industry generates $1.5 to $3 billion in direct economic impact across the province each year from the $345 million the province “invests” by sharing revenue from Slots facilities at racetracks.
“That $345 million was a huge economic driver,” Wright said.
Locally, the Grand River Agricultural Society invested $20 million to build the raceway complex in Elora, and has paid out $50 million in purses since it opened in 2004, said Grand River Raceway general manager Dr. Ted Clarke.
Purses are a part of the racing industry and directly stimulate the rural economy, he said, and cutting purses will hurt the province and the local region.
Putting the racing industry into decline will also hurt the federal and provincial government who get $650 million in taxes and licences from racing, he said.
Grand River Raceway alone last year paid out $1.87 million in salaries, buys $1.8 million in goods and $400,000 in services each year, and pays $150,000 in utility costs each year. The agricultural society donates thousands to local programs and activities – like BT Corner and Bissell Park, a clean water program for schools, children’s art area at Art in the Yard and so on.
“All of that activity stems from and depends on the viable operation of Grand River Raceway and the horse racing industry,” Clarke said