Despite the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and other challenges, Ontario Racing Independent Chair John Hayes remains hopeful of a bright future for the horse racing industry in the province.
In a year of unprecedented challenges for horse racing throughout the province, the resolve and resiliency of the estimated 30,000 Ontario residents the industry employs has remained strong in the face of many adversities.
“The 2020 racing season was unlike any other ever seen before in the Ontario horse racing industry,” said Hayes, who has held the position of Ontario Racing (OR) Independent Chair since June 2018. “The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic meant lost race days, revenue shortfalls, and new thinking in terms of product distribution and marketing. As the industry turns its attention to the 2021 racing season, there are still lingering questions regarding what the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for Ontario’s horse racing industry. Increased risk and uncertainty still remain as to whether tracks will be allowed to welcome on site guests in 2021. With this new operating reality, OR has evolved to remain as nimble as ever in navigating the uncertainty that lies ahead.”
The coordinated efforts of many to ensure the highest standards of health and safety protocols through multiple lockdowns is something everyone associated with Ontario horse racing can take great pride in, noted Hayes.
“As a result of the pandemic, the industry endured ever-changing regulations and protocols to ensure the safe continuation of racing. OR worked with member racetracks, the OLG, the AGCO, health officials, and Federal authorities, to maintain a safe work place to conduct racing. No racetracks were closed in 2020 and 2021 due to protocol breaches. With the recent downgrade to “grey” for the Hamilton area and impact to Flamboro Downs operations, OR was able to quickly coordinate among our members and regulatory officials to transfer those racing dates to Western Fair and Woodbine Mohawk Park. Unfortunately, the most recent lockdown announced by the Ontario Government has temporarily ceased live racing as of April 3.
Support for Horsepeople / Wagering Landscape
As the voice of horse racing in Ontario, OR continues to work in concert with racetrack operators, industry partners and stakeholders, the OLG, and the Provincial Government, to ensure the best interests of horse racing and its participants are always a top priority.
To that end, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, OR created a task force to address the financial impacts to Standardbred horse racing in Ontario.
As a result, support for Quarter Horse, Standardbred and Thoroughbred horsepeople, in response to the loss of live racing days related to the pandemic, came in the form of equine benefits, an initiative spearheaded by OR. The funds were already committed to the industry through the Funding Agreement for Live Horse Racing between Ontario Racing and OLG.
“Horse racing, like many other industries in the province, has been severely impacted by the pandemic,” said Hayes. “The Ontario Racing team, OLG and industry representatives, worked together on behalf of the industry to see the equine benefits come to fruition.”
On the wagering side, annual gross wagering from 2018 through 2020 has increased 7 percent, although that number is down in 2021 due to the impact of no on site wagering and closure of off-track wagering locations. Wagering numbers are projected to increase in 2022 as racetracks and offsite wagering locations reopen to the public.
Investing & Supporting the Industry
OR continues to invest its funding provided through the Long-Term Funding Agreement to ensure long-term sustainability and support its horse racing participants. Distribution of these funds among purses, the breeding industry and racetracks, is managed by members of the OR board of directors, which represents horsepeople, breeders and racetracks in the Province.
Transition funds payments were continued by the Ontario Government, which meant that our smaller track operations will receive this vital funding for another five years.
Given the integral part breeders play in the overall supply of horses to the racing industry, Ontario Racing has, in conjunction with Ontario Breeders (Quarter Horse Racing Owners Association / Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society / Standardbred Breeders of Ontario Association), horsepeople associations, and racetracks, coordinated a number of changes to the horse improvement programs with the overall goal to enhance the value of Ontario Sired yearlings and increase the horse supply in Ontario.
Funds available to the Thoroughbred Improvement Program (TIP) have increased by over 12 percent since 2018. Allocations to breeders within the program have more than doubled since 2018 and represent almost 43 percent of TIP spending. Investments over the years have included a new mare recruitment program, mare purchase programs, increases in breeder awards, and sales credits to the annual Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society sale.
A product of cooperation between Ontario Racing’s TIP committee, the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, and Thoroughbred racetracks, has resulted in the establishment of the Ontario Sired “Heritage Series” for 3 year-old-colts and fillies that will be held this year at Woodbine and Fort Erie racetracks.
On the Standardbred side, excellent cooperation between Ontario’s racetracks, breeders and the horsepeople represented by the Central Ontario Standardbred Association, has helped mitigate some of the negative wagering impact experienced in funding the program. Now in its second year, the Prospect Series, supported by the Ontario Sires Stakes program, will provide racing opportunities for 2- and 3-year-old Ontario Sired fillies and colts who don’t participate in higher class divisions of the Ontario Sire Stakes Series. In 2020, the annual fall Standardbred yearling sales in Ontario were able to basically hold flat in face of the pandemic.
Ontario Quarter Horse breeders, horsepeople and Ajax Downs, have worked closely during these times to bring stability to their live racing product. New incentives for 2021 include an increase in Restricted Stakes Races and overnight breeding bonuses, all designed to maintain and draw new ownership into the business.
OR funding to the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society and LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society will continue, in an effort to ensure quality aftercare for retired Ontario racehorses. Support of racehorse-related research with the Ontario Agriculture College will also continue in 2022.
With the proposed changes to the Federal Criminal Code regarding single-event sports wagering, OR submitted a brief supporting the addition of protection to horse racing wagering commissions in the legislation and also the changes to the criminal code that would allow implementation of historical racing machines at race tracks as potential future revenue to the industry. Our Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsepeople associations, as well Woodbine Entertainment, provided live testimony to the federal committee.
The FY2022 road map, as laid out by Ontario Racing, will seek to restore the industry back to near normal operating levels in terms of wagering, horse supply, and racing activity, consistent with those levels experienced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on the industry, with a relatively consistent horse supply in Ontario across all three breeds for the 2021 racing season.
Going forward, the need for a united Ontario horse racing industry is more important than ever, said Hayes.
“The past year has produced a set of challenges that one never expected to deal with. The sacrifice and cooperation of all Ontario Racing members, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and the Provincial Government, for the common good of horse racing in the Province has allowed us to continue into the future. We must work collectively to ensure the future success of the industry we all care so deeply about. As we are all aware, horse racing continues to face challenges – both in the short and long term – which the industry, working together, will deal with. That is why we need to collaborate now and in the future. I wish everyone involved in Ontario horse racing the best in 2021 and beyond.”