It’s hard to figure out where the government is coming from in its recent announcement to cut the horse racing industry out of their share of slot revenue at race tracks. For years the horse racing industry was a cash cow for government. Now that circumstances have changed the cow is being put unceremoniously out to pasture. Until the 1960’s the only legal way you could gamble was at the race track or Bingo. Ontarians who wished to really ‘walk on the wild side’ could also obtain a ticket for the Irish Sweepstakes—officially illegal in the Province, but largely winked at by authorities. Back then Woodbine Race Track regularly entertained crowds in the 10,000 range. The record crowd for a Queen’s Plate was over 40,000. For years, the  government of the day happily scooped up their share of the cash. Let’s face it–the main reason that horse racing has fallen on hard times is that the government  gave the gambling public, which vastly outnumbers genuine horse racing fans, so many outlets for wagering that people, gamblers at least, no longer had a reason to go to the track. Between off track betting, lotteries, and casinos, gamblers could skip waiting 30 minutes between horse races to wager—instead they could now sit in front of a slot machine and pour their money into it as fast as they could pull the handle. The revenue “stream” became a torrent. Then in the Harris era, responding to concerns from the horse racing industry that their business was dying, the government decided to allow slot machines at race tracks and to share some of the take with the horse crowd. That support totalled $350 Million last year. Last month the government announced it was pulling slots altogether from Fort Erie race track and tracks like Flamborough would keep their slots but there would no longer be a share given to the horse owners. The government operates so many ventures that lose money , its hard to understand why they are killing a business that continues to make money even after the horse people get their share. Using this year’s first two quarters as an example, at the current pace of revenue, slots at horse racing tracks in Ontario will bring in about $1.7 Billion. Subtract $350 Million for the horse owners and roughly $62 Million that is paid out to host municipalities like Hamilton, and you still gave a gross profit of almost 75%. What is wrong with this picture? If the reason for the cutback was that the government had suddenly decided that it was immoral for a government to prey on the old, the lonely and the addicted among us; then at least we could have a debate about the evils of gambling. But in this instance the government seems to be setting the stage for even more access to gambling by considering placing a mega casino in Toronto, and possibly allowing computer gambling, which now means gamblers won’t even have to get dressed in order to gamble. Horse racing authorities claim that more than 60,000 jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the industry. That number seems exaggerated and has been disputed by government ; but even if the true number were half that—it’s a significant loss of livelihood that affects every part of the province.  At least when the government put tobacco farmers out of business they offered them transitional assistance. We see nothing here for the horse owners.

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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