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End of an era Sunday at Woodbine: Perkins

 

It’s not as if they’ve saved the best for last, but a field of 14 Ontario-sired $25,000 maiden claimers will scoot seven furlongs around 7 p.m. Sunday evening at Woodbine. It will be the last race of the Ontario thoroughbred season and surely the last race in an era of prosperity for an industry now facing a terrifying uncertain future.

This is the state of Ontario racing thanks to a misguided, dishonest and downright mean attack campaign by the Ontario government and its lead dog, Ontario Lottery and Gaming. Even mighty Woodbine, which has produced hundreds of millions in revenue for this province in decades since E.P. Taylor built the place, does not yet know when its next thoroughbred season will begin. Or what form it will take.

The standardbreds, who face a bleaker future than their saddled cousins, race year-round and will keep Woodbine humming this winter. They know they will race four days a week in a season that begins in two weeks but are not certain of much else. They also nervously eye March 21, 2013, the day the lucrative — especially for the government — slots-at-racetrack program officially dies. Without their share of revenues from slot machines at the tracks, some $345 million a year (compared to the province’s no-risk share of $1.1 billion annually), racing can’t and won’t survive in its current state.

Already, top stallions and broodmares have been shipped out of the province and breedings are down one-third to one-half over last year. With smaller tracks closing (a couple already have) and racing opportunities shrinking likewise, plenty of horses will end up in little tins, their owners unable to afford any other alternative.

Sadder still, racing was doing relatively well lately; all-source wagering for 2012 was up over 2011, by 6 per cent for the thoroughbreds and 5 per cent for the standardbreds. So why did the government decide to kill a golden egg that is by far the largest contributor of any OLG product (to say nothing of the 30,000 people racing employs directly and another 25,000 or so indirectly)?

Apparently in order to open more American-owned casinos, even though provincial casino operations, by OLG figures, are losing about $100 million a year. The other part of the new gambling equation is expanding bingos and their product line.

What kind of industry with a board of directors scraps a hugely successful program worth $1.1 billion annually, and the industry behind it, in order to bolster the arm of the business losing $100 million?

Racetrackers knew they were in trouble when the government and OLG suddenly decided the horsemen’s and racetracks’ 20 per cent portion of slots-at-racetrack revenue was a “subsidy.’’ But bingo hall operators keep 47 per cent of the take and OLG refers to that as “commission.’’

Repeat after me: 20 per cent that keeps an historic and lucrative industry of 55,000 alive is too much, but 47 per cent going to bingo proprietors is just right.

To this nose, this strategy smells worse than any stall at Woodbine ever could.

From Dave Perkins, The Toronto Star