By Perry Lefko
The President/National Director of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society is hopeful an announced plan by the Ontario Liberal Party to provide up to $105 million annually over a 19-year period will create some long-term sustainability for horsemen in the province.
“The breeders really believe they need a five-year window to make a business plan,” said Peter Berringer, a longtime Thoroughbred horseman in Ontario who was voted in as President/National Director of the CTHS in January after serving as Vice-President the last eight years. “I think the government decided on the need to give horse racing some stability, especially for rural communities where all the farms are located. The government needed to do a long-term funding plan.”
The new program, scheduled to begin in April 2019, would replace the existing Horse Racing Partnership Funding Program and will be administered by Ontario Racing, which is responsible for representing industry interests, making strategic business decisions and strengthening transparency and accountability. The plan, which has been worked on for about a year by the Government and horse racing entities, was announced on March 23 by Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa, who remarked: “Today, our government is committing to a landmark agreement that will support the long-term sustainability of horse racing in Ontario. This funding will encourage economic development in rural communities across the province, while giving racetracks and breeders an opportunity to build a strong future for an industry that is central to our heritage.”
The Ontario horse racing industry receives $100 million a year from the government. Back in 2013, the Liberals ended the Slots At Racetrack Program that annually netted the horsemen and racetracks $330 million, while the Government collected $1.1 billion. However, an auditor appointed by the Government determined the horse racing industry was a subsidy and cancelled the program without consulting the horsemen. It forced many horsemen out of business, resulting in thousands of people losing their jobs. Under new Premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals provided the horsemen with $100 million a year and some stability.
Berringer was one of two horse people who attended a Liberal Town Hall meeting earlier in March in which Wynne was talking about various community issues. Berringer introduced himself as President of the CTHS.
“I wanted to see her and talk to her about horse racing,” he said. “I thought it was a good opportunity because it’s difficult to get meetings with [the Government] because of their busy schedules. She is known to have an avid interest and concern about agriculture in Ontario. I think she’s one of the driving forces to keep [this partnership with horsemen] going.”
When Berringer posted a photo on Facebook of himself with Wynne, some people posted some critical remarks about the Premier, whose popularity has plummeted considerably in recent years. Berringer said he was disappointed by some of the posts and added that a lot of people don’t seem to understand what is going on behind the scenes with the horse industry file.
“They are mad at the Government and I don’t believe it’s one person’s fault,” he said.
Berringer said the details of how the program will work and the monies allocated are still to be announced.
There is concern that the program could be scuttled should the Liberals, which have been in power for more than 14 years, be replaced by another party or not maintain a majority. Berringer is hopeful the program will go forward regardless of the outcome of the election.
“Enough people have worked on it and there’s been enough critics in the other parties that have been fighting on the behalf of horse people, too, because so much of Ontario is rural,” Berringer said. “I would assume for the horse industry to survive, this is the plan, but if it’s not the same Government or whoever it is in power, I guess you’d have to see if they agreed with it. This has taken a long time to work over and you see politicians from the different parties have been lobbying for the horse people, too. I would assume [the program] will stay in place.”
Berringer attended the formal announcement by Sousa at a harness racing track. Representatives from all aspects of Ontario horse racing were in attendance.
“We’ll be very interested to read the details of the long-term funding agreement, but it does have to give you some level of comfort knowing we have a long-term deal in place,” Berringer said. “I assume there is a lot more work to go to make sure it works for everyone, but it’s better than going every three to five years of whatever to try to negotiate a new agreement. If the breeders don’t have a long-term cycle they don’t have the stability.”
The program will introduce a new Racetrack Sustainability Innovation Fund, providing up to $6 million over three years, beginning in 2018, to help regional racetracks innovate, diversify and expand revenue sources to ensure the vitality of the industry for generations to come. Fort Erie Racetrack, the only other track in the province that has Thoroughbred racing, has been struggling for sustainability for several years now.
The long-term funding agreement will also empower the horse racing industry to work together to make long-term decisions about horse breeding, racing programs, capital investments and hiring. It will include specific measures focused on supporting community racetracks, including operational funding and purses.