Day At The Track

Tracks future after 2018 season unclear

06:28 PM 30 Sep 2017 NZDT
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Driver Clarke Steacy, Harness Racing
Driver Clarke Steacy directs Party Beach to the winners circle in the first race as Kawartha Downs opens its harness racing season on Saturday May 27, 2017 in Fraserville, Ont. Kawartha Downs has applied to expand to a 40-race season in 2018 but its futur
Clifford Skarstedt/Peterborough Examiner Photo

FRASERVILLE - Kawartha Downs has become one of Ontario's more successful harness racing tracks the past three years but a dark cloud looms on the horizon.

Orazio Valente, who took over as general manager earlier this year when the Fraserville track was placed into receivership, said attendance and wagering are among the best in the province. They've averaged more than 1,000 spectators over the 17 race nights this season entering Saturday's final card. That's more than the province's largest tracks at Woodbine and Mohawk average on a regular night; excluding special events. The KD handle is averaging in the neighborhood of $40,000, which Valente says is exceeded by only Woodbine and Mohawk.

Yet, when Great Canadian Gaming closes the Shorelines Slots at Kawartha Downs in October 2018 to enter its new Shorelines Casino Peterborough facility at The Parkway and Crawford Drive, Valente says the track will lose the rent paid by the casino which is 85 per cent of Kawartha's revenue. He said six per cent comes from Ontario Lottery and Gaming funding for purses and some operating expenses and the remaining nine per cent from wagering and food and beverage sales.

"Under the current financial arrangement with the OLG and the government I can tell you, quite honestly, it will be fiscally impossible to provide horse racing at Kawartha Downs beyond the 2018 season. If all else stays the same. That's just an economic reality," Valente said.

A lot of discussion is going on with all the stakeholders to find a remedy, he said.

"Everyone is aware of the dire situation," he said.

Valente said the government originally tied casinos to race tracks to get a footing in the province. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement as the casinos helped fund the tracks. But he says the government gave casino operators permission to move away from the tracks with no contingency plan for those tracks. It's a shame, Valente said, because a lot of work has gone into the track to improve the facility and fans have flocked in numbers not seen in many years.

"By all accounts we've had a good season," Valente said. "Kawartha Downs has the highest attendance of any Ontario race track on a normal race night. Kawartha Downs is only second to the WEG (Woodbine Entertainment Group), which is Woodbine and Mohawk, for on-track handle. We do have something special going on at Kawartha Downs."

The Downs has applied for 40 race dates in 2018 in an attempt to generate more revenue, Valente said. Races would run from March to December. A shortage of horses, he said, prevents them from running more than one card per week.

Jeff Leal, Peterborough MPP and Ontario's agriculture, food and rural affairs minister, said four other Ontario tracks face the same dilemma. He said he's engaged in finding a solution.

"We're looking at options right now to see what we can do to keep those race tracks whole beyond 2019, 2020 and 2021," said Leal. "The leasing dollars generated are a key part of the financial model and we need to look at options as to how we might be able to backfill that amount of money."

Leal said off-track betting is one option being discussed. He said he'd like to explore the option of Shorelines Casino keeping some slot machines at the track. Another option is for the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation to create a special category for race tracks without a casino to significantly lower their tax rates.

"I'm fully engaged in this because I have a great commitment to horse racing in the province of Ontario and the impact it has on rural communities," Leal said.

He said he knows this is a pressing issue with the new casino in Peterborough opening next fall.

"I'm very cognizant of the calendar," Leal said.

First start for Lima Oh So Sweet

Lima Oh So Sweet, a new member of the Murray Brethour stable, will make her first lifetime start at Kawartha Downs Saturday night, the final race card of the track's 2017 season.

A three-year-old daughter of Credit Winner, Lima Oh So Sweet is owned by Mark Harder, a leading New Jersey based trainer for many years along with Rick Phillips of New York. Harder had trained the filly in the US until earlier this month when she was shipped to Murray to race in Ontario.

Many race fans will remember Lima Oh So Sweet’s dam, the Angus Hall mare Oh Sweet Baby who was a force to be reckoned with during her two- and three-year-old seasons in the Ontario Sires Stakes program as well as on the Grand Circuit. The winner of the OSS Super Final at the conclusion of her two-year-old season, Oh Sweet Baby was trained by Ben Baillargeon and driven by his brother Mario.

Lima Oh So Sweet is the first foal from Oh Sweet Baby who retired with earnings of more than $660,000. Rick Webb has been tapped to drive the sophomore in the second race where she’ll leave from post five.

The card features the annual Shorelines Drivers’ Championship starring Kawartha’s top nine drivers from the 2017 season in races three through seven.

Draws and giveaways will be conducted throughout the evening as the track celebrates another successful season of racing.

Post time is 7 p.m

By Mike Davies, Peterborough Examiner

Reprinted with permission of The Peterborough Examiner

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