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Ontario Horse Racing Debate: A First Visit to Queen's Park

I work for Racing Future and when two events relevant to Ontario horse racing were taking place on one day, March 28th, we decided who would go where. Our CEO, Dennis Mills, went to Fort Erie Race Track and spoke at the press conference. I got the opportunity to go to Queen's Park and listen as horse racing took centre stage during the debate which followed NDP MPP Taras Natyshak's motion regarding the Slots at Racetrack's cancellation. I was very excited about getting this opportunity. I have never been to Queen's Park before and was really looking forward to the experience.

I didn't feel I had drawn the proverbial "short straw" until after the debate began.

Before I explain why I want to state my own position on this issue publicly. I do not agree with the way the Slots at Racetracks Program was abruptly terminated. The result of this decision has been and will continue to be catastrophic for many horse people in this province. I have done what I could and what I thought was right in order to help change the outcome: I work for Racing Future and during the leadership campaign I spent all of my time educating as many people as possible about what horse racing is and why it's important to many rural parts of Ontario. I listen to people talk about the impact on breeders, owners and the like, and although I understand completely what many of these Ontarians are going through, for me this crisis is very much about the 1000s who work in barns across this province making minimum wage sweeping floors and shovelling manure. In many parts of Ontario, these kinds of farm jobs are one of the few kinds of employment going and, in my opinion, more thought on the part of all stakeholders should have been put into considering what would happen to these people once farms started closing and tracks stopped offering horse racing.

At the Legislature, I joined a group of horse racing industry participants. I climbed down the awkward stairs to sit in the Gallery and watch the democratic process unfold with all its promise and majesty.

Very noticeable at the outset was how few Liberals were in the house during the debate; there were also several empty PC and NDP seats. These empty seats suggested to me a lack of concern, a disrespect towards rural Ontario. I mean, there we all were -- a small group but nonetheless important -- sitting in your Gallery and you don't show up?

I was a Liberal delegate at the leadership convention. I believe in Premier Wynne, that communication is the way out of darkness, that those "conversations" she's always going on about are what we all should be doing. For me, the fact that few Liberals were in their seats, listening and taking part in the debate, leaving the Minister of Rural Affairs, MPP Jeff Leal, virtually alone to shoulder all was very disappointing. Mr Leal did his best to be heard above the din but I was disappointed that more of his fellow Liberals were not there to show him support.

Even more discouraging was to experience how "business" is conducted in the house. Here we all were sitting quietly, being respectful, waiting to hear meaningful debate on our industry, our futures and what do we get?

A great deal of shouting and, quite frankly, verbal abuse amongst those who are meant to represent us. Visitors who travelled from far and wide to hear some words of empathy, some level of understanding of what they're now going through walked away commenting on how childish and abusive the Members frequently are to one another. MPPs spoke out of turn, rudely interrupted each other, sprawled in their seats, swinging their chairs around like unruly school children, only scolded into showing a modicum of respect by the Speaker who was repeatedly on his feet saying, "Stop the clock." The shouting and desk banging was so loud at times that it was impossible to hear anything that was being said.

For me, a person with little prior knowledge of the democratic process in action, the behaviour of our provincial representatives was both embarrassing and shameful.

Even worse in a way was watching the seats fill up almost completely just before the vote took place. This left me to wonder, what, you couldn't be bothered to show up for the debate but you're here for the vote?

And as the for the vote itself?

There were members who came into the house at the end of the debate but then left just before the vote. My understanding is that our parliamentary rules are such that Members must vote along party lines except in matters of conscience (such as capital punishment) so if an MPP leaves just before a vote, to me that suggests he or she is not supporting his or her party. This is not a stellar demonstration of showing support for those whose lives have been so deeply impacted by a governmental decision nor of a strong belief in our parliamentary democracy.

The motion was introduced by the NDP. While Mr Natyshak was speaking, he was constantly berated by PC Members particularly about the NDP decision to abstain on last year's Liberal budget. Then, when the PCs spoke there was often so much noise from interruptions that I couldn't hear anything anyone said. Each side appeared to be calling the other hypocritical. It was quite perverse, then, to see the PCs stand in support of NDP at the end.

The lack of significance of this motion and subsequent vote now was not lost on those of us descending the stairs from the Gallery.  All of us commented on how abusive and negative the atmosphere was and how -- a year too late -- the whole exercise was meaningless in some ways.

Outside, one horseman told me that he has maybe another 3 months of money to feed his horses. After that it will be all over for him, vote or no vote. Won't matter any way, he said, the industry will be gone in a year. Politicians are all liars he told me. Get rid of the Liberals and you'll just get more of the same.

And why would any Ontarian feel differently after witnessing the spectacle we saw yesterday?

I came to the Legislature to get a message of hope. Horse people are big on that -- on hope -- even the Horse Racing Transition Panel said that about us. And, to me, one of the ways hope is inspired and nurtured is by being in an environment of respect. I saw little by way of respect yesterday. For those of you who were interrupting others and pounding on your desks, do you know how terrible you look to those who chose you to represent us? We, the people treat you with respect. If you ever become a Cabinet Minister, we are meant to address you with title, "Honourable." I saw little that was honourable in yesterday's proceedings. Members disrespected one another and in doing that they disrespected us. The world, your world -- Ontarians -- were watching. Do you even care what we think?

It's Easter weekend, a time of renewal. And, even if this weekend holds no religious significance for you, this time of year, Spring, is a time of renewal. Let's hope that our legislators go through a process of renewal and are able to come back to Queen's Park with a new and genuine respect for one another that will show they are ready to work together for all of us.

 

Jenny Bridle

Feel free to get in touch anytime at jennybridle@racingfuture.com

 

COMMENTS Received 

From R Markle

Hi Jenny

I hope you don't mind but I forwarded your letter to some journalist who write and report about Queens Park. So hopefully they will publish your letter in the Star or write about it. It was spot on, I think our elected need to take a good look at themselves and see what we see. I to was there on the 28, I was there for question period as well. I will share a little story. There were a group of children watching, I'm guessing they where around 8 years old. When question period was over, they where going on a tour of QP and an older page,asked the kids what they thought. One little boy said he thought they fought a lot, the page replied that was not fighting but heckling, the little boy replied my mom calls it fighting and tells us not to do it. Out of the mouths of babes. Thanks Ronda Markle

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From J Kertesz

I watched the entire charade on TV, you're right - a disgusting display of how our tax dollars are misspent!

Using any issue to squabble amongst themselves in self-promotion to get votes in the next election. Racing

is just the 'foil' this week ... next week ........ ????

Anyway, sadly my view of the racing situation is quite contrary to yours. I am educated,have been involved

at several levels of racing since the 1970's (including cleaning the u know what in stalls, buying,racing,breeding,

writing software for operators etc. etc.) and as disgusted as you are with the politicians, I am the same with

the breeders of thoroughbreds who let Windfields become a parking lot and the N.Dancer line slip completely

away to Ireland.

Rather than chew a lot of cabbage twice, below is a copy of a letter that I have sent about 25-30 times in the past

year (with variations depending on who it was going to). It's the simple truth, and to take it a step further - I attended a large American University and learned 1st hand in sports that you can create your own demand. By promoting the sport constantly, the seats were filled with 65,000 fans for a Spring intra-squad football game each year. What I'm saying, our newspapers have stopped writing about racing for years ... I suggested to WEG once that they take a page themselves EVERYDAY - human interest racing stories, highlights and preps of important events etc. etc. ... never happened.

I have been involved at many levels in Cdn Thoroughbred racing since the 1970's. Granted the harness and thoroughbred situations are different but there are some common principles.

I would like to see racing survive ... everywhere/anywhere ... but let's be realistic. If it relies on slots to survive then there is a preponderance of 'machine' gamblers over horse gamblers; they wouldn't care if you replaced every horse with a machine.

I can more honestly speak for the thor. industry - I regard it as a universal international sport. When you breed a horse you should take the approach , my foal can run anywhere! Then you achieve the "Mona Lisa" ... if you have something good, someone in the World will want it. If you breed for the locals and the local industry does not have the demand, you get what you get as a matter of fact. One day I perused the pools of the feature race at Sudbury Downs on a weekday ... $150.00 (one hundred and fifty) - total pool. That much would have gone through one slot in 10 minutes!!! How can you justify the support of that???

To digress, as an avid observer of the sport, I submit at least in thor.'s the extra money was widely abused. I previously worked at a high level with the Fed. in Ott. and saw firsthand, as analogy, how subsidy damaged the Aerospace industry. In Thoroughbreds, in EP Taylor's day, N.Dancer & sons'yearlings sold for $1M +++ , since the 1980's and with slots money in play, the top yearling reaches "maybe" $200k. Instead of using the extra $$$ to improve the mare base, they spend $500 to breed cheap horses to run for inflated purses in restricted races.

Kentucky auctions for top horses have been out of sight for a few years now. The business is alive and

well in many places - quality horses are the reasons. If your excellent harness horses cannot achieve similar demand (similar to Tbred) then there simply is not the required demand for harness racing. Boxing has given way to UFC ... it's life !

I have very much switched my allegiances to European racing - flourishing with great horses – the N.Dancer line exists almost entirely in Ireland now - our bumbling slot-reliant breeders let it go ... and in Europe .... NO SLOTS .... NO DRUGS ... smaller meets filled with Graded Stakes and 20 horse fields ... great racing !!!!

jk 

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From J Sherwin

Hi Jenny

I just wanted to say Thank You for summing up what goes on in Queen's Park Legislature.  I have watched it on the computer several times and am appalled at the way these children carry on.   They talk about bullying...  I have written may MPP to say these very things which you have pointed out.  My version wasn't so well written so I hope you don't mind but I will definitely be forwarding your story.  I only wish it were in every newspaper going.  You would be surprised how may fellow Ontarians feel the same way.  So Thank You for a great story.  Judy 

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From L Ferguson

Well said Jenny and I feel exactly the same way you expressed it! It was my first time also although I was watching online and also watching my mare who is due to foal any time now (she is almost three weeks overdue!).

I thought it resembles a grade six or seven class when the teacher is out of the room!

Just to point out, although I am a breeder I am the only one working for myself (and my husband) I clean the stalls, sweep the barn floor and keep watch for the foals to be born. I do not make a lot of money doing this. We are happy IF the horses pay the bills that is to say, break even.  Every day I smell like horses, usually have mud or horse hair on me and dress in sweats or work pants. But I am a breeder of Standardbred horses.

Thanks for your blog post. I know of many who felt the same way! Don't forget the invite to come see the babies (if they ever get here!)

Lori

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From J Kertesz

Hi Jenny ... 1st Happy Easter!

When I took my MBA we had an entire course which was a business game. It was a fictitious industry composed of 6 companies (6 teams) and the goal was to come out the best with the use of equal budgets to start - the idea was to manipulate our assets to achieve the highest sales in the industry, of course winning the small battles increased your budgets accordingly.

Some teams used R&D to improve products or add new ones, others re-organized administratively for cost savings etc. etc. ... but it always struck me ... our team won hands down by continuously increasing our advertising and promotions. As the model was fairly sophisticated and I trust realistic, there was a great lesson in that!

Have you ever attended the summer Saratoga meet ? It is one of the most successful meets anywhere, you virtually have to make reservations 6-8 months ahead for a good spot. Anyway, most of the stores hand out for free little booklets, as in a stamp collection, with jockey pictures over blank pages. Then over the course of the meet there are set days where jockeys appear at malls to sign the booklets. Ergo, the entire community has contributed to racing promotion. Typically here in Toronto, all you will get is an ad from the track saying to come out for a big race. If you have minor interest in racing you probably won't even look at the ad.

Food for thought!

jk