“What’s going to happen to Ajax and Kawartha Downs and those who breed, train and race horses in this region?” That was the prevailing question at the most well attended, passionate and articulate of the six Ontario Racing consultations held to date this afternoon at a golf course near Port Perry, Ontario.

The hall was packed, standing room only, with breeders, horse owners, drivers, trainers, jockeys, from all three breeds of racing, Quarter Horse, Standardbred and Thoroughbred, as well as employees of both the local racetracks, Kawartha and Ajax. The purpose of the meetings (this was the sixth of seven with the final one to be held next Tuesday afternoon in Milton), was to receive feedback from the horse community about the long term future of the industry in the province and Ontario Racing’s proposed structure going forward.

The meeting was moderated by Wes Muir. Rob Cook, the executive director of Ontario Racing was the main speaker along with Dr. Ted Clarke, general manager of Grand River Raceway. Also in attendance from OLG were Cal Bricker, Tina MacMillan, Gabrielle Gallant and Ryan Dupuis.

Cook led the assembled through a power point presentation which outlined the proposed structure which would see all the racetracks in Ontario in one alliance which would be run by Woodbine Entertainment Group.

The full power point presentation may be viewed orpowerpoint

Cook advised that they are taking feedback from all of the information sessions and will have a report based on that within four weeks after the final session on Tuesday.

This particular consultation session was unique in that the two local racetracks are certainly in different positions than any other track in the province and neither are part of the current eight track alliance.

Ajax Downs is the only Quarter Horse track in Ontario and thus faces challenges specific to that breed.

Allen Hadley, the race secretary at Ajax, pointed out another factor that is unique to the two tracks. “Right now we’re in the growth area in the province. The 407 (highway) is being extended to the 115 (which Kawartha is off). This area deserves more funding given that we have the population growth.”

Kawartha Downs is the only racetrack in the province thus far which has had their slot operation sold to an outside entity (in KD’s case Great Canadian Gaming). And unlike sales that will take place going forward of the slot areas in the racetracks, there was no provision for the buyer of the Kawartha site to support horse racing and therefore it is currently in a very precarious position as Great Canadian has made it clear that they are looking to move the slot area out of the facility and into Peterborough itself.

Dave Gibson, the OHHA rep for Kawartha, asked if OR had any solutions if the slots did leave the track and Cook acknowledged that there is a good possibility that the track would close. “That might be a possibility. I can’t deny that. There are limited dollars and there will be casualties along the way.”

On the same vein, Justin Picov of Ajax Downs voiced his concerns about losing the slot operation at their facility. “Those of us in the Quarter Horse business have no other choice as to where to race in Ontario. Does OR have plans for us if we lose our slots? Could your track operate without the slot operation?” he asked Dr. Clarke.

“Well, we operated before slots, but I can’t guarantee what would happen in that event,” answered Dr. Clarke who spoke about the current model of the alliance and how it operates. He pointed out that wagering at all of the tracks involved has risen during the period since the alliance was introduced.

The idea of the suggested new alliance gave pause to many in the audience given that WEG would be the administrator as there is a long held resentment from some of the stranglehold that organization has on the industry. There was also discussion about the alleged WEG majority on the OR board and the fact that the Quarter Horse industry has only one voice on the board, Bob Broadstock, who was also in attendance.

“You’re asking us to give all control to WEG, that’s concerning,” said Broadstock.

“We’ll note your comment,” said Cook. “Keep in mind that the OR board has to approve WEG’s plans and you’re on that board. We understand the fear of WEG and its history. Remember OR’s mandate is three breeds, one mandate.”

The seeming disparity of purse funds between WEG and the other tracks was also pointed out.

As one local trainer pointed out – “WEG’s preferred goes for $34,000 – that’s more than an entire race card at Kawartha.”

“There’s no way you could consider cutting purses at Kawartha,” said Gibson. “That would kill us. Where we are now is not a good place.”

Another horseman asked why Kawartha couldn’t have one night of racing throughout the year. And why when it does race one night a week during the summer, there is racing scheduled on the same night at the closest track to it, Georgian Downs.

Cook noted that the new alliance would have control of the live racing schedule going forward, upon approval by the OR board.

The agreement being suggested would run for 17 years (it would start after the current one ends) so that would go to 2038. Seven of those years are guaranteed with two additional five year renewals provided key performance indicators are met (they are not sure exactly what those KPIs will be at this time).

David Heffering, owner of nearby Tara Hills Stud, the largest Standardbred stallion operation in the province which also handles some Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse studs, asked how the industry can trust the government given there were contracts in place prior to the abrupt end of the slots at racetracks program as well.

“A lot of us don’t have any trust left in the government, they’ve been dragging their feet on this a long time. It doesn’t seem like the OLG wants to work with horse racing. Where are the new gaming opportunities the horse industry has been promised?”

Larry Todd, former ORC Vice Chair and local owner and breeder, echoed that sentiment. “How do we ensure that we don’t get our throats cut again? Once you have the flesh on the skeleton of your plan are you going to hold additional consultations?”

Bernie McCormack, former Farm Manager of Winfield Farms and now owner of Cara Bloodstock and Mapleshade Farm in nearby Janetville made an impassioned plea on behalf of all in attendance that the government needs to provide answers and quickly.

“I have to say, I don’t like this plan. I want to stay and race in Ontario, many of us do, but it’s become almost unviable. Why can’t we simply follow the same program that’s in place in New York? The government can’t change things on a whim, it’s the law,” he noted.

“Meanwhile I’m sure I’ll see many of the names of the government administrators assigned to horse racing on the sunshine list while they spend forever under this huge burden. Make it a law, take the government out of it.

“I’m investing $100,000 in one mare and I’m still not sure what’s going on here, and I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to people in the US what’s happening here in Ontario, it’s so confusing. No investors are going to come in, why would they?

“The message you’re giving us today is not encouraging anyone to invest. It doesn’t seem that OLG’s priority is racing. We can’t break even on this proposal. Make it work, follow New York and it’s law, there’s no infighting and we’re all on one side, united we stand,” he added to a round of applause.

Paul Van Camp, a local owner of many significant Standardbreds over the years noted: “What I’m not hearing is anything regarding the horse population. It’s been absolutely decimated. There are fewer foals, fewer owners and we can’t build betting without the horses.”

The current proposal would see $93 million split among the three breeds each year for the next 17 years.

“The question is do you want the $93 million or don’t you? The government sent us out to see where that sits. It’s totally up to you. There’s an election coming and it all could change two months from now,” said Cook who stressed that the message received from those in attendance at the consultations would be what would be given to the government and that may well be that the $93 million is not sufficient.

Another point, brought up by Sharon Cameron a Standardbred breeder who also works for the government, was that the fact that the contract states it’s good to 2038 isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. “I see it all the time, the government gets out of contracts constantly. And who will audit what OR and WEG are doing with our funds? It better not be the government. Who will ensure our money is allocated properly?” she asked.

“At the end of the day the OLG is responsible,” answered Cook. “It has the responsibility to oversee and grow horse racing.”

As for the timeline of the plan, Cook noted that they expect the initial report in January with the final draft by the end of March. “Some people think that’s moving too quickly, some think we’re dragging our feet.”

Cook was also asked what would happen if all breeds agree on a letter of intent and WEG isn’t on board. “Could OR take over from WEG? That’s conceivable for sure.”

The meeting was adjourned just after 3:30, two and a half hours after it started. The conveners, speakers and OLG staff in attendance were very pleased with the session and the turnout and impressed by the passion for horse racing shown by those who braved the wet, cold afternoon to be on hand.

Further information may be found on the Ontario Racing website