By Patrick Battuello,
In Behalf of Animals
Part 1: The End of Ontario Horseracing?
In anticipation of Ontario’s Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) ending early next year, a three-member “Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel” (the Panel) was convened to help wean the horse people off corporate welfare. The Panel, in an interim report in August, did not disagree with killing the subsidy, calling it long overdue, but, in a nod to racing interests, found the proposed $50 million transition funding (a sort of severance pay) to be inadequate. Believing this “valuable social and cultural asset” worthy of saving, the panel offers the following recommendations in its final report:
- Total race days should be cut in half (to about 800), with an emphasis on quality (full fields, good purses) over quantity. The surviving racetracks (there are currently 17) should work as an alliance that pools purses and markets a collective “Ontario Brand.”
- Purses, currently comprised mostly of slots money (63.6% overall, up to 90% in Standardbred racing), should be funded entirely by actual betting on the races (the handle).
- Because, the Panel says, virtually all racing industries across the globe require government assistance, some public “investment” in Ontario horseracing will still (always?) be necessary, especially considering the huge hole that must be filled: In 2011, the slots-to-handle revenue ratio for Ontario’s racetracks was almost 3:1 ($172.5 million, $65.3 million).
- Noting that the consumer, the horseplayer in this case, has received scant attention up until now (with the slots trough providing ample funding, why would he?), the Panel recommends a re-commitment to the customer in order to preserve and expand the suddenly vital pari-mutuel pool.
To this point, all seems reasonable, including the need for temporary (the Panel says three years) province assistance because what happens to the current horse herd and thousands of industry-dependent workers when SARP ends is of no small consequence. Most reasonable, of course, is the time-tested free-market principle that an industry’s fortunes should depend on product, not government favors. Animal advocates can live with this because horseracing forced to subsist on just horseracing will not long survive. But then the Panel takes a wrong turn.
To bolster track revenue and, by extension, to minimize the need for future public funding, the Panel floats some possible new products. A “racing-specific lottery” (not sure what that entails) and pari-mutuel wagering on past races seem relatively harmless. But the third idea is another matter altogether. The Panel proposes that racetracks be granted a monopoly on taking single-event bets on other sports, a form of gambling expected to soon be legalized. Horseracing’s willingness (surprise) and expertise, the Panel says, make it a perfect fit for running a sports book. It’s win-win for the Province (new revenue) and horseracing, and because “a sports book is not essential for casino operators,” the tracks will not gain an unfair advantage in the gambling marketplace (a dubious claim). So once again, the industry stands to benefit, probably not to SARP levels but who knows, from government largess. This non-racing income will not only significantly subsidize the tracks (estimated at $50 million annually), but the horsemen too will benefit as less handle will be needed for track operations, resulting in higher purses.
Talk of ongoing public investment and new-product monopolies belies the promise of a self-sustaining horseracing industry. These funding measures, if adopted, roughly translate to SARP II, and a racing industry that will (indefinitely) continue to be artificially propped. How comforting it must be to know that government will not let you fail. A shame, really, for Ontario seemed on the right track.