Part 1: Future of Elora harness track remains in question

With the clock counting down to the start of the horse racing season, Grand River Raceway in Elora still has no idea how often it will be able to open its doors this year – if at all.

“We don’t know how many days we will race. We don’t know how many races we’ll have per day. We don’t know any of the facts that we need to make proper plans,” says facility general manager Ted Clarke.

Ever since the raceway opened in 2003, it was able to use revenue from slot machines to help keep the track afloat financially.

But in early 2012, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. announced that slots at racetracks were on their way out – if not the machines themselves, at least the revenue-sharing agreements which had been so beneficial to Grand River Raceway and a number of other tracks.

Dwight Duncan, then the province’s finance minister, painted it as a question of priorities.

“When you’re faced between choosing additional home care services versus horse racing … you have to have priorities in this day and age,” he said last March.

Protests at MPPs’ offices and Queen’s Park weren’t enough to convince the government to restore the program, only to land the industry a bit of transitional funding.

Racetracks across the province will receive up to $50 million over the next year to help them through the transition -- but that’s down from the $345 million the industry received annually from the slots.

“Now we’re adjusting to a transition program which, unfortunately, isn’t very clear yet at this point in time,” says Clarke.

Many racetracks have negotiated rental agreements with the OLG, allowing them to keep the machines in exchange for a set fee.

Although the fee is much smaller than what the tracks received under the revenue-sharing agreement, the tracks see it as better than getting nothing.

Grand River Raceway has yet to finalize a rental agreement of its own.


Part 2: Harness racing downturn has large effect on host communities


When the provincial government’s revenue sharing program for slots machines at racetracks comes to an end, it won’t just be the racetracks taking a hit.

The harness industry stands to lose about $300 million across the province with the end of the program, but an even greater effect could be felt by the communities that host the tracks.

It’s an outcome that was considered unthinkable only three years ago.

At that time, when Quebec’s horse racing industry was on the brink of collapse, many Quebecers who made their living in that sector packed up and headed west.

Yvon Giguere was one of them. He was managing a track in Montreal when the track’s operator suddenly went bankrupt.

“From the guy selling the hot dogs to the top manager, we found (ourselves) overnight with no more job,” he says.

“After 20 years of working in the same place … you say ‘OK, I will have to move.’”

So Giguere, like many of the 7,000 other Quebecers who lost their jobs in the industry, moved to Ontario.

It seemed like the perfect fit. While tracks were going bust in Quebec, they were booming in Ontario.

Now, Giguere finds himself in the same situation he thought he had escaped.

And this time, it’s 30,000 Ontarians who are staring at potential unemployment.

In towns like Elora, where Grand River Raceway employs 120 people, those numbers add up.

“There’s a lot of pain out there in rural Ontario,” says Centre Willington Mayor Joanne Ross-Zuj.

That pain extends all the way to Ross-Zuj’s office.

Money from racetrack slots also finds its way to the municipalities hosting the tracks. And with the province choosing not to renew its revenue-sharing agreements, Centre Wellington stands to lose an annual $1.5 million from its budget.

“Every year, all of that revenue is consumed by projects that are needed for the community,” says Ross-Zuj.


Part 3: Thousands of jobs at stake as Ontario harness racing industry transitions

As changes to Ontario’s harness racing industry come into effect, the 30,000 people it currently employs are starting at their futures with a cautious eye.

This will be the first year of operation at racetracks across the province without receiving annual revenue of $345 million from slot machines.

Instead, the province will provide $50 million in transitional funding.

At many tracks, the loss of revenue will also mean a loss of racing days.

That will lead to a loss of jobs rippling across Ontario’s equine industry – even affecting those who drive horses to and from the track.

“There’s going to be so many drivers standing around and doing nothing. It’s going to be very competitive,” says Bob Young, a stable hand at Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville.

Young’s son Scott now works as a driver. It means long days, but he doesn’t mind.

“Up between 7 and 7:30, at the barn no later than 8,” says Scott.

“I work all day with my dad. Jog and train horses, help the girls groom, stuff like that.”

It’s a job he’s wanted for a long time – and with his dad having worked at the track for 30 years, one he knew was attainable.

“I remember the first time I went behind the start in a car, it was unbelievable,” he says.

“I’ve wanted to do it from then on. I’m going to stay in it for as long as I possibly can – until there’s nothing left.”

But with slot revenue decreasing, times have been tough. Woodbine Entertainment Group, which owns Mohawk, closed the stables along that track’s backstretch in December.

The Youngs were able to keep their employment, but they know many who didn’t – and they’re worried what will happen to their livelihoods if racetracks have to cut any further.

Equine veterinarian Dr. Melissa McKee is another of the lucky few who survived the cuts.

“People have left and I haven’t replaced them because I just don’t have the capacity to hire any more people,” she says.

“It used to be an absolute hive of activity and now it’s like a graveyard.”