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Numbers up, but Grand River sees need for better deal

Grand River Raceway general manager Ted Clarke is optimistic the province will facilitate the reintegration of slots revenue to the horseracing industry. [Scott Barber / The Observer]

Since narrowly avoiding the chopping block during the Township of Woolwich’s failed bid to land a casino last year, the Grand River Raceway has ramped up its marketing presence and is enjoying a strong start to the harness racing season.

Grand River Raceway general manager Ted Clarke is optimistic the province will facilitate the reintegration of slots revenue to the horseracing industry. [Scott Barber / The Observer]
Grand River Raceway general manager Ted Clarke is optimistic the province will facilitate the reintegration of slots revenue to the horseracing industry. [Scott Barber / The Observer]
“Overall, we’re ahead significantly over last year’s wager at the 22-day point,” said Ted Clarke, general manager of the facility. “That speaks to the fact that there is still significant interest. I think there are things that we could see improve but there are also things that we are happy they are going better than they did last year. I’d say overall, the season is off to a pretty good start and we are pretty happy with it.”

Both the handle and attendance numbers have increased for the Monday and Friday night races, while each have dropped slightly on Wednesday evenings. On the balance though, there have been “more gains than losses.”

“We’ve made a significant effort to attract people, as opposed to last year when there were such questions about where we were headed,” Clarke said. “This year we’ve made it a point to aggressively pursue our share of the marketplace.”

While the races have drawn solid crowds since opening night on June 2, concerns over the future of the larger horse industry remain. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation ‘s (OLG) decision to pull slot revenue from the province’s racetracks (the horsemen used to receive a 10 per cent cut) has many fearing the eventual demise of horseracing in Ontario.

“If you look at the industry as a whole, the uncertainty hasn’t disappeared for the people that are the participants: The people who own the horses and breed the horses and that sort of thing,” Clarke said. “Until we see a path that will be followed for the integration with the OLG, I’m not sure that there will be an end to the uncertainty for the participating part of the Industry.”

While the provincial Liberal government has pledged some $500 million in support to raceways over the next five years, Clarke says it is simply not sufficient without some revenue sharing by the OLG.

“To be quite frank, I’d be happy if there was less government support if in fact there was meaningful integration into the racing and gaming portfolio,” Clarke said. “The difficulty that has existed in most jurisdictions where there is gaming, (is) they start off by using the racetracks as being a means of delivery and as the gaming pushes in, there is less and less attention paid to the racing and gaming becomes more dominant. So if there isn’t sufficient acknowledgement of the importance of the horseracing to the economy and to the delivery of the gaming product, than in fact you see horseracing contract.”

Currently, the provincial funding helps boost the prize money offered at Grand River Raceway, which has held steady around $65,000 per race night. However, there are many other racing venues across Ontario that haven’t been able to maintain the level of their purses since the OLG stopped providing revenue.

“Here, because we have a relatively small number of slot machines compared to the number of race days, we never had the $100,000 a night purses that some of the tracks were able to give out,” Clarke explained. “So the loss here isn’t as great. But the loss across the province is a significant factor and it has left the breeders and the people who are training, buying and owning horses in a lesser position. They have to do more with less.”

With falling stakes the number of owners will likely drop, Clarke added.

“It starts at the ownership level. There are fewer people who are owning, and if there aren’t owners, there aren’t trainers and all of those things are additive. You decrease the number of owners and trainers and horses and that also means you decrease the number of people who are grooming and the number of trucks that are on the road. Just the fact that there isn’t sufficient optimism to breed horses and to own horses has a snowballing effect as it works its way out through the horseracing economy.”

The Wynne government needs to step in to stop the downward trend, Clarke said.

“The province has to be a meaningful part of the return to a more balanced approach, and I think they are at least setting out to do that. We are all impatient to see it take place, but we have reason to expect that it will take place and that we can assume a meaningful position. Besides the disruption that it caused, the change in the structure of the program really has brought to the forefront the significance of the horseracing economy in Ontario. It has far-reaching effects that influence things like truck sales and the harness shop at Wallenstein.”

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