Ontario Standardbred Breeders Headed To Court On October 20, 2014

            Lawyers representing standardbred horse breeders in their lawsuit against the province of Ontario say counsel for the province is trying to drag out the case and inflict punitive punishment on the breeders.

                            Tuesday afternoon, the two sides were in Ontario Superior Court of Justice, in Guelph, where Judge Michael Emery dismissed the province’s request to adjourn a motion related to producing documents in the case.

Tuesday evening, Jonathan Lisus, the lead lawyer for the breeders said his clients, “were pleased that the motion to adjourn was dismissed and we’re going to get documents,” Lisus said.

But, he said the breeders are stoic about the latest development in a case that began in April. “They know the government doesn’t want to produce documents. The government doesn’t want there to be transparency and visibility into how they made this decision,” he said.

Susin Micallef, the acting media relations strategist for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, which oversees the horse racing industry file for the province, said via email: “As this matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment.”

The breeders allege that when the government, through the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation, gave one-year’s notice in March of 2012 that it was cancelling the Slots at Racetracks Program it caused irreparable harm to breeders, in particular. The slots program provided, on average, more than 60 per cent of the province’s racetrack purses. When the program ended, it sharply reduced the value of horses the breeders had invested heavily to produce prior to the surprise announcement that the program would end.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. No date is set for a trial in the matter.

Tuesday, Lisus referred to an Ontario Auditor General’s report released April 28 that found the lottery corporation caused significant damage to the province’s horse racing industry by cancelling the slots program. The 70-page report prepared by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk is highly critical of the lottery corporation’s “abrupt” termination of the slots program and that the lottery corporation was “fully aware that the decision to cancel the program would have a significant impact on the horse racing industry in Ontario.”

“The Auditor General’s report has been pretty clear that the government did not behave in a transparent, open way,” Lisus said. “I think they’re trying to avoid documents coming to light that will reveal that… We look forward to getting access to this information and bringing the issue in front of the court.”

Ian Matthews, a lawyer working with Lisus on the case, alleges the government also appears to be considering, as part of its defence, asking the court for a motion to see some aspect or aspects of the case resolved prior to being explored in a trial. If that plays out and is allowed by the court, he suspects this litigation’s resolution could be significantly delayed. He says that could “run out the clock for a number of these standardbred breeders.”

Meanwhile, Lisus alleges the government is further seeking to punish standardbred breeders by refusing to enhance its breeders’ awards program for that breed until the lawsuit is completed or settled. This year, the province announced major enhancements to the awards program for both thoroughbred and Quarter Horse breeders, neither of which are involved in the lawsuit. Standardbred breeders are still receiving some money from the awards program — bonuses, essentially, for producing successful racehorses here in Ontario — but under the terms of the older, less lucrative system.

“I think that they felt if they withheld (enhanced) breeders’ awards for long enough the plaintiffs would buckle,” Lisus said. “I think they questioned whether the plaintiffs had the emotional and financial wherewithal to see this through. They’re now beginning to understand that these plaintiffs aren’t going to buckle, that they are going to see this through and there’s some real issues here.”

In the meantime, it is Lisus’ contention that, “It would appear that the government intends to make this as difficult as they can for these breeders… We’ll have to keep pressing the court to press Ontario to respond properly to the lawsuit.”

The sides are due back in court on Oct. 20.

Dave Briggs is the president of the Canadian chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association. He can be reached by e-mail at dbriggs1969@ymail.com

(Dave Briggs)

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