TORONTO — New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath pledged Wednesday that her party would reinstate the slots-at-racetracks program if it wins the next election.
Flanked by people employed in the horse racing industry and their families, Horwath challenged the governing Liberals to reconsider their decision to scrap the SARP program and replace it with a new five-year plan worth $400 million.
“We believe this government threw out the baby with the bath water,” Horwath said. “There were improvements that could have been made and instead they decided to deep-six an industry.”
Horwath called SARP the “right program for Ontario” but added the NDP would work with racetracks, horse owners and workers to make the SARP program, or something like it, more transparent and accountable — without delivering such a devastating blow to rural Ontario.
The SARP saga began in 2012 when former premier Dalton McGuinty cancelled the program. After a backlash, he appointed a three-member panel to devise a new strategy for the industry. The panel’s job was to put the industry on a sustainable path because, in the government’s eyes, SARP wasn’t manageable over the long term since the bulk of horse racing purse money was drawn from activities unrelated to wagering on horses.
That has prompted some to call SARP a subsidy, but many in the horse racing industry contend it was a revenue-sharing agreement. They also note that any concerns over accountability and transparency were centred on racetrack owners, as opposed to racehorse owners, who only ever saw a share of the SARP money if their horses finished in the top five.
The province received 75 per cent of slot revenue under SARP, while racetracks and horse owners (through purses) would each receive 10 per cent (the remaining five per cent went to municipalities where the racetrack was located), or roughly $345 million per year.
The province has raked in more than $9 billion since 2001.
Under the new plan, the province will invest $400 million over five years, establish an alliance of standardbred racetracks in southwestern Ontario and create a new governance model for the Ontario Racing Commission. The plan proposes to allocate 90 per cent of the funding to this cluster of racetracks, as well as to Toronto’s Woodbine track — the sole site of thoroughbred racing in Ontario, while the remaining 10 per cent would be earmarked for regional tracks in Ottawa, Peterborough, Sudbury and southwestern Ontario. It remains unclear what exactly this means for Rideau Carleton Raceway, but officials at the track hope to secure two racing days per week.
The opposition Tories — who were quick to point out that the NDP supported the government’s budget in 2012 in which SARP was killed — say they would stabilize the industry by giving racetrack operators the opportunity to buy existing slot machines at fair market value, allowing slots to remain at tracks and providing a good return to taxpayers.
During question period, Premier Kathleen Wynne — who, as agriculture and food minister, oversees the horse racing file, said the NDP has put forward no plan to make horse racing sustainable.
“The suggestion that underlies the leader of the third party’s question is that somehow everything was fine under the previous regime, that the slots-at-racetracks program was fine, that it was good public policy. That’s just not the case,” the premier said.
(The Ottawa Citizen)