Tracks forced to refocus on racing?

Did the government set Ontario racing up for longterm success or sound it's death knell? Michael Burns Photography

For the many years that the slot money was pouring in the Ontario racing industry held itself up as one of the major success stories in the sport. The thoroughbreds at Woodbine and Fort Erie and the standardbreds that competed at the 16 tracks spread across the province ran for big money and the breeders were pumping out horses by the thousands to fill the many racing cards.

But, underneath the fat purses, something was wrong. The sport had veered off the tracks, so infatuated with the slots that racing and racing fans had become a necessary annoyance. Its soul had gone missing, its very existence dependent not on its core product but on a government-run slots program that many politicians saw as a handout to a failing business.

That's not the definition of success nor it is a recipe for long-term success, and that's the message a group of political appointees drove home last week when they unveiled a tough but fair blueprint for the industry's future.

When the Ontario government concluded that there were better uses for the millions that were going directly from slot machines to racing the industry was angered, felt betrayed and wondered if it could survive. At some of the smaller harness tracks the purses were almost 100 percent dependent on slots money.

The furor wasn't necessarily misplaced. The government so abruptly pulled the plug on the slots money that owners, breeders and trainers were blindsided. One day they were racing for huge purses, the next they had no idea if they could survive. Lives were shattered.

From the government, horse racing got an honest pledge to work with the sport to fix what had ailed it.

But that's the position you put yourself in when your business can't stand on its own two feet. Ontario horse racing, by itself and with the way it was set up, was no longer viable.

From the time it was announced that the slot money would no longer go toward racing there's been a scramble to figure out how to save the industry. Racing people wanted the government to rethink its decision to end the slots program, but that was never going to happen. From the government, though, it got the next best thing, an honest pledge to work with the sport to fix what had ailed it.

The provincial government put together a Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel that was put in charge of coming up with a plan to make the sport viable. Most within the industry remain so bitter toward anyone and anything that has anything to do with the end of the slots program they can't look at anything the panel does objectively. If they did they might see that the panel seems genuinely committed to the sport's future, understands that some form of government assistance is vital to keep it going and has come up with a commonsense, tough-love plan that could actually make a stripped-down sport get healthy again.

The panel understood that for the sport to get back on track the people in charge of it have to start caring again about the fans and the product. It continually scolds the industry for losing its focus when it came to racing, saying "the industry became disconnected from its customers and had little incentive to face the challenge of a changing entertainment market by investing in a better consumer experience."

Much of that criticism is directed at the smaller harness tracks and not Woodbine, where management never stopped caring about racing. But it's true that the entire sport grew complacent. No one cared much about the facilities, at least the non-slots sections of the buildings, the quality of the racing or, really, if anyone bet on it or not.

"The industry has lost its way," the report read. "The focus has shifted to producing more, not better, races and racehorses."

To get the sport to start to care about the bettors and the product again the panel came up with an ingenious plan. It is calling for the government to match the amount each track takes in on its handle. For instance, if a track handles $1 million and makes $200,000 in commissions off the handle the government will pay it an additional $200,000. In the past, government/slots money was given to the tracks and they had no incentive whatsoever to care about racing. Now, the only way they can get ahead is to do everything possible to increase handle, and the only way to do that is to put on a good show, treat the customers right and aggressively market the sport.

The panel went several steps further, providing a roadmap for the sport to get its act together.

They want a defacto racing czar or central office for the sport to end all the infighting and the dysfunctional aspects that come with it. The sport will be run by an organization called Ontario Racing Live, which will have control over racing dates and how purse money is allocated.

They want racing schedules that make sense and the type of racing cards that bettors like. "Much of the industry is built on racing that is not attractive to the consumer. This has to change," the panel wrote. To do this, there has to be less racing and the racing that continues has to improve. The panel wants to discontinue harness racing at Woodbine and create a circuit of high-quality racing that includes just five tracks. There's little doubt that the amount of thoroughbred racing offered at Woodbine will be reduced.

It will take a while for the new system to be put in place but when it is Ontario racing, both thoroughbred and harness, will have a commissioner's office, the emphasis will be on less is more when it comes to racing, the product will be improved, taking care of the bettor will be a priority and harness racing will revolve around a high-quality circuit.

Maybe ending the slots program wasn't such a bad thing after all.