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Horseracing industry in limbo during heated casino debate

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You may have heard that the Slots at Racetrack Program (SARP) came to an end on March 31, as the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) pursues a strategy that favours developing new casinos in various municipalities. Given that the racetrack owners had previously earned 10 per cent of the slots revenue, with another 10 per cent going to local race associations, you may have also heard that this decision has led to much industry dissent.

And so, as shockwaves resonate through the industry, your first question may be: will the slots be taken from Elora’s Grand River Raceway when its lease with OLG expires?

“We recognize that there is a possibility that they will go,” said Ted Clarke, general manager of the facility. “But on the other hand, this has been a very effective site for the Province of Ontario, and they’ve garnered a good deal of revenue here.

“There is a natural population base around this area if you take Orangeville, Caledon, Guelph, and the small towns to the north and west of us. It’s a relatively affluent rural area that has supported the place well, and I don’t think there’s any guarantee that someone from Orangeville is going to drive to Kitchener to go to a casino.”

As well, there are other practical matters worth considering, he added.

Ted Clarke, general manager of the Grand River Raceway, sees a bright future for the Elora facility. But as the OLG shifts its focus from racetracks to casinos, he has felt shockwaves in the horse breeding and agriculture industries.[will sloan / the observer]
Ted Clarke, general manager of the Grand River Raceway, sees a bright future for the Elora facility. But as the OLG shifts its focus from racetracks to casinos, he has felt shockwaves in the horse breeding and agriculture industries. [will sloan / the observer]
“The building isn’t 10 years old yet, so it still has a lot of life yet; I can’t imagine that consideration wouldn’t be given to keeping this a gaming site. I think there are lots of good and positive things to say for this site.”

So, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future of the Grand River Raceway, but there are larger ramifications to the removal of SARP than the survival of one racetrack. Consider: some local businesses, such as feed mills, are built heavily on feeding horses, and thus rely on the racing business. “They really do need to have a place like this to function,” noted Clarke.

Consider also: the Grand River Raceway is owned and operated by the Woolwich Agricultural Society, a not-for-profit corporation whose goals include conserving natural resources, encouraging beautification, and promoting activities in rural areas.

“It has, over the past few years, awarded thousands of dollars of scholarships to kids who go to school in Guelph or others,” explained Clarke. “We’ve awarded three years’ worth of payments to the University of Guelph for the Ontario Agricultural College to develop a better admissions program and attraction program for high school students.” (Indeed, the Grand River Raceway recently provided a venue for an Agriculture College activity day, introducing high school students to careers in agriculture).

Clarke’s key point: “There’s a whole side of this that has nothing to do with gambling, other than gambling provides the revenue on which these activities are based.”

In the event that slot machines disappear from the Grand River Raceway, Clarke does believe the facility has plenty else to offer. “Quite a bit goes on beside the game,” he noted. “We see on Friday nights people coming to watch the horses. They can bring the kids and have a good time watching the horses and competing in the games.”

And what about competition from new casinos? Woolwich council has made the township available for that option, while other municipalities in Waterloo Region have declined. A more serious threat may come from the other gaming zones identified as potential sites for new casinos, however.

“About 30 per cent of the people who come here have a Kitchener address. That means 70 per cent of the people who come here have an address from somewhere else. That’s the basis on which we say, we think this place can continue to act,” said Clarke.

“There is a large population of people that are served by this site. Whether those people would transfer to Kitchener, I couldn’t tell you. But my guess would be that they wouldn’t, because proximity would be an issue.”

However, there’s no denying that the OLG’s modernization strategy, encouraged by the provincial Liberal government, has led to a shift in the tenor of the gaming industry. In the past two months, Premier Kathleen Wynn has reaffirmed the party’s commitment to “integrating horseracing into the OLG’s modernization strategy.” Has the Grand River Raceway felt any impact?

“Of the total revenue coming here – and part of it was for horse people, part of it was for the track – it has been cut in half,” said Clarke. “So we’ve noticed it.”

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