As critical talks continue to establish a new gambling product that will integrate Ontario’s horse racing industry and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation — and drive revenue for both — the woman leading the charge on behalf of horse racing is appealing for patience.
Sue Leslie, the president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association said Wednesday afternoon that she is encouraged with the dialogue between a subcommittee of her group and the lottery corporation, despite the “tedious” nature of discussions that, so far, have examined more than 20 options for products.
“Every product has so many ‘ifs, ands or buts.’ We’re weighing them all, both from a marketability point of view, the actual legalities legislatively, federally and provincially and for the impact on other OLG products and horse racing,” Leslie said. “It’s very complex. It’s hard sledding going through them all. They have divided things up between what can be done short-term and what is going to take a longer process to go through.
“That’s not great for the (horse) industry, I understand, because we need new revenue lines sooner rather than later. In terms of the big picture, I’d like to think we could progress to something in 2015 that we might be able to get up and workable, but at this point, I sure couldn’t guarantee it. But we’re trying. Everyone is trying and everyone is co-operating.”
Leslie said the industry must devote considerable energy to new ways to interest customers in betting on horse races.
“That’s our number 1,” she said. “Every racetrack operator, every horseman’s group, every breeder should be thinking of ways to interact with the public to make them interested in our product so that we don’t have the OLG shaking their finger at us saying, ‘Well you’re just living off us. No one likes or cares about your product.’ Then, the second priority is that we increase the province’s bottom line. If we want to be integrated and we want to say we belong as a partner, we have to add to the bottom line.”
Leslie said she’d like to get more discussions going about specifics — notably, how the money on a new product would be shared, how the horse racing industry will be held accountable and how the racetracks will cut in the horse racing participants on the new game.
“It’s cloudy for horse people and we need to get clarification there on how horse people are sharing and to make sure that horse people get a voice because they have felt very left out through this process and they have been, which is not right,” Leslie said. “The focus has been on meeting with racetrack operators in terms of funding and how funding will flow and who controls it and all that. So, all of that has yet to be moved forward. I feel pretty confident that those talks will start in January.”
For the time being, Leslie said the government’s five-year, $500-million investment in horse racing has stabilized an industry crippled in 2012 when the Slots at Racetracks Program was cancelled.
“We’re not where we need to be and I know there’s still people hurting … but compared to the year prior, we’re in a much more stabilized position than what we were,” Leslie said. “Stabilizing it isn’t good enough because (the industry has) shrunk so badly. We now have to figure out how to entice and encourage people to start investing again, because horse shortage is going to be a very, very serious problem for us as an industry. … How are we going to fill races? So, we need incentives, we need ways to encourage horse owners to purchase and breeders to breed. I think that’s going to be a real challenge for us going forward.”
As integration talks drag on into 2015, Leslie said she understands those who are cynical about horse racing reuniting with the lottery corporation. The two parties last worked together on the slots program that was gutted by the province.
“My feeling on that is there’s obviously a history here of mistrust between the industry and OLG and vice-versa. How do you rebuild that trust? That’s what we’re trying to do is rebuild trust. So, if we take the approach that everything we do and everything we talk about is done on a very guarded basis and on the basis of, ‘Are they being sincere? Are they really working with us, or are we being stonewalled?’ I don’t think it is productive to have that mindset, because neither they nor us will get anywhere,” she said.
Leslie said reunification is critical to the sport’s future in Ontario, but the last three years have exacted a huge personal toll.
“It’s been the worst three years of my life, I will tell you that. For sure, it’s been a horrible experience,” Leslie said. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount and still am learning every day, but it’s been very hard to watch the disintegration of the industry and take the personal calls from people who were losing everything and asking, ‘What should I do?’ I’m sure anyone that has a picture of me from three years ago and a picture today, I’m sure the photo would say it all.”
Dave Briggs is the president of the Canadian chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
(Guelph Mercury By Dave Briggs )