Guelph Mercury: Breeding Numbers Show Harness Industry Is In A Death Spiral


Breeding numbers prove Ontario’s harness racing industry is starting to nosedive into a death spiral now that the Slots at Racetracks program has ended.

In fact, the sharp decline began more than a year ago when the Liberal government announced the program would end in March of 2013, effectively stripping the industry of more than 60 per cent of its funding. The ensuing uncertainty caused investors to look elsewhere — the United States, mostly — to breed horses.

It seems no amount of government announcements on transitional aid, funding for the Ontario Sires Stakes program or confirmation that 12 Ontario racetracks would play host to at least some live harness racing in 2013 has stopped the economic hemorrhaging, yet.

Numbers released by the Standardbred Breeders of Ontario Association nearly two weeks ago show that in 2011, just over 4,000 mares were bred to Ontario stallions. Last year, that number was down 30 per cent to nearly 2,900. News of the end of the slots program came early in the breeding season.

The numbers for 2013 are predicted to be much worse.

The association contacted the four biggest standardbred breeding farms in the province — a quartet that accounts for about 80 per cent of the breeding in Ontario — and found that just 900 mares had been booked to Ontario stallions for this year, with that number expected to top out under 1,000. If that holds true, that would mean an approximate decline of 68 per cent in just two years at the province’s four biggest farms. A similar trend — or worse — is predicted for smaller breeding operations.

Meanwhile, the decline is not just bad news for those who breed horses for a living. It will perpetuate the bad news for the entire industry.

The Liberal government cancelled the slots program because it said the horse racing industry needed to move to a more sustainable self-funding model relying solely on the revenue from wagering on horse racing. In theory, that makes a lot of sense. Except, by removing the industry’s main funding source so quickly, the government created gross uncertainty in Ontario’s horse racing market and drove investment away.

It may take a few years but, as things stand, it is inevitable there won’t be enough horses to fill races, even if tracks sharply reduce their race dates — which is further problematic because it decreases how much revenue the tracks and industry can earn.

Since full race fields is the No. 1 factor in attracting betting on horse racing and that parimutuel wagering is now the industry’s primary source of funding, the revenue will continue to decline, which will also cause a reduction in purses. As purses and racing opportunities continue to go down, it will be a further disincentive to race horses or breed them to produce offspring to race. What little investment there is left is sure to leave Ontario at that point.

When that happens, count on the government of the day to say horse racing simply can’t exist on its own and then remove whatever’s left of the industry’s funding.

Unless, of course, Premier Kathleen Wynne was serious about ensuring horse racing was a partner in future gaming initiatives because it makes sense for jobs, the economy and rural Ontario.

If so, horse racing participants are praying a concrete announcement on a sustainable funding source comes soon. Otherwise, before too long, there will be nothing left of a once world-class horse racing industry that supports 30,000 full-time equivalent jobs in Ontario, a high percentage of them right here in the Guelph region.

Guelph Mercury

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