For nearly a year now, the Ontario horse racing industry has been trying to get the attention of the provincial Liberal government. That government, led by premier Dalton McGuinty, moved in February 2012 to pull the plug on the revenue-sharing Slots At Racetracks program which had made Ontario's Sires Stakes program, and racing in general, the envy of most other North American jurisdictions.
And it did so without industry consultation, without warning, and with a campaign of misinformation that, unfortunately, is not without precedent for this party.
No one denies there are aspects of Ontario racing that need fixing, but to cancel a program which was a win for both the Liberals, the horsemen, the 17 provincial racetracks, and the municipalities which host those racetracks, made -- and still makes -- no economic sense. Nor does the proposed "modernization" of gambling which the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation has put forward: full-scale casinos and bingo halls in urban settings, many stocked with machines which, we are told, are not slot machines but mysteriously look and operate just like them.
The Liberals have embroiled themselves in scandal after scandal, which has led to protest after protest at Toronto's provincial legislature, Queen's Park, and elsewhere. It may also have led to McGuinty's surprise resignation in October 2012, and the prorogue of that parliament, which has left the provincial government essentially rudderless and at a standstill.
Racing has certainly done its share of protesting. Signs and posters and placards have been waved on the Queen's Park lawn, billboards and bus-shelter signs have been purchased, websites have been launched, and radio and television interviews have been done, but there has been very little visible traction, especially compared with the efforts of more powerful groups also raising their voices in the past year. Ontario's public school teachers, protesting unilateral wage freezes and having their right to strike abolished, have proven a particularly strong and unified voice. And the national First Nations uprising called Idle No More, has also found itself in the headlines.
Part of the problem has been that racing, as ever, has struggled to present a unified front. In Ontario, Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse racing co-exist uneasily and with as little interaction as they can manage, even at facilities where they share the same grandstand. Like squabbling kids sharing a schoolyard, they seem to be incapable of playing nice. Even when their livelihoods depend on it.
With the March 31 deadline for the closing of the remaining slots parlors at racetracks hurtling towards us, the racing industry may be making one big, last-ditch effort to be heard. At Toronto's repurposed Maple Leaf Gardens, once the home of the Leafs (back when they used to win Stanley Cups), the provincial Liberal party is gathering to elect a new figurehead on Jan. 26.
Driver Anthony MacDonald, who has taken the assault on Ontario horse racing as a personal crusade, going so far as to don a suit and tie and present himself as a future candidate for the rival Conservative party, is behind the drive to make racing a visible and vocal presence at that convention.
He posted a video rallying the troops on Standardbred Canada's website, and has requested that rival organizations, the Ontario Harness Horse Association, and the Central Ontario Standardbred Association, representing the horsemen racing at Woodbine and Mohawk racetracks, work together to make it happen.
Buses will be running from Mohawk Racetrack on both Friday (Jan. 25) and Saturday (Jan. 26) to transport concerned horsepeople to downtown Toronto for the rally. MacDonald plans to be in attendance both days, although a very ill-timed wreck at Flamboro earlier this week may mean he makes his appearances on crutches.
"What happened to our industry wasn't fair and it didn't make sense," MacDonald says. "They didn't do the math, and it's unacceptable. I know they're trying to work off a deficit, but there's fiscal responsibility and then there's wilful ignorance. We didn't get a haircut; we got our heads cut off.
"I got into this because the government owes us more respect than they've given rural Ontario. We've never asked for handouts and we're not now. We're just asking for 55,000 jobs to be preserved.
"The way we communicate in this industry needs to change, and we need to build a blueprint for Ontario, which if it's successful could become a blueprint for all of North America. But first we need to convince the new Liberal leader that we're going the wrong way on this."
Making racing's plight heard will be a tall order at the convention. MacDonald and Brian Tropea, of OHHA, have heard that upwards of 200 buses, disgorging passionate sign-waving people for multiple causes, are anticipated to arrive at the congested downtown location of the Liberal convention. The result is likely to be utter chaos. But racing could stand to learn a thing or two from those groups whose protests have gotten more response than ours. Here's hoping the learning curve is successful.
by Karen Briggs, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent