The new chair of the Ontario Racing Commission says fractious horse racing partners need to band together to decide key issues regarding the industry’s future or have those decisions made for them by government.
Elmer Buchanan told The Canadian Sportsman magazine the new funding model gives government the ultimate say in how money will be spent, particularly if the tracks, owners, breeders, trainers and drivers can’t make those decisions first.
Buchanan, who was the province’s agriculture minister from 1995 to 2000 in Bob Rae’s government, was most recently one of three members of the Guelph-based bipartisan Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel that helped craft the new five-year funding model for the industry released in October at Grand River Raceway in Elora. Buchanan served on the panel with John Snobelen and John Wilkinson. All three are expected to have a continuing role in the horse racing industry, with Snobelen likely to head a new government body that will report to the commission and determine how best to spend the $80 million a year that has been allocated for the province’s three racing horse breeds — standardbreds, thoroughbreds and quarter horses.
“We are certainly going to move away — this is important, I think —from a consensus kind of thing where everybody gets in a room and says, ‘We want money. We want money.’ You have three (racing) groups within the division and they can’t agree on anything,” Buchanan said. “We’re going to tell them or John (Snobelen) or somebody is going to tell them, ‘This is your chance to make a decision. If you don’t, somebody else is going to make it for you.’
“We have not said that (Snobelen) was the czar or whatever of that organization, but he certainly is going to have a strong leadership position there and he’s going to be encouraging the breeds to (make decisions).”
Key to horse racing’s sustainability will be a much-promised integration with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation, horse racing’s former partner with the Slots at Racetracks Program. How that integration will work is still vague and many in the horse racing industry are skeptical the lottery corporation will ever work to help grow the sport.
“I appreciate the skepticism of the horse guys because they’ve seen history and they saw the ending of (the slots program) was basically a divorce,” Buchanan said. “The new government, the Wynne government, has said, ‘No, no, we’re not getting divorced, we’re going to get back together and we’re going to make this marriage work.’ So, when two people get back together after divorce, obviously there’s skepticism on both sides and it will take a while for that to get resolved, but the idea, at this point, of having Snobelen and Wilkinson and myself here now at (the commission) is to try to make this thing work, take the report we gave to government and try to make it work through all the different facets of government, including (the commission) and (lottery corporation).”
The new five-year plan for horse racing will start in April. Until then, Buchanan and the commission’s executive director, Steve Lehman, have a lot of work to do to set up this new business development unit through which government money will flow to the industry. Since the commission’s role as the sport’s regulator gives it the power to determine who is licensed to participate, Buchanan said the new funding structure will give the commission the power to make necessary changes to the industry in the name of sustainability.
“They’re going to have the purse strings and the stick at the same time. We as a panel believe that by having those two facets in the same organization, if you will, they can entice the industry to work together,” Buchanan said. “If they don’t, then there’s no money. They can go on having races wherever they want, but they won’t get government money if they don’t either come together with decisions.”
Dave Briggs is the editor of The Canadian Sportsman, the oldest harness racing magazine in North America. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org