Plan for harness racing doesn’t include Sarnia says industry head

The map for success for the harness racing industry doesn’t appear to have a stop in Sarnia.

That according to Brian Tropea, the head of the Ontario Harness Horse Association.

The province is holding hearings into a draft report on the industry. Last year, the province ended a program which saw harness racers receive some of the revenue from the slots at raceways. It also removed slot venues from some tracks, including Hiawatha Horsepark in Sarnia.

The report calls for the creation of a new body to oversee harness racing which would figure out who gets what piece of the revenue pie from the racing purses. Under the plan, the more successful a race track is, the more money it would get from the province. But perhaps the most troubling recommendation for horsemen is the recommendation to cut the number of standardbred racetracks from 12 to 5.

Tropea says the report makes it clear only the big tracks, Grand River, Western Fair Raceway, Flamboro Downs, Georgian Downs and Mohawk Raceway would remain with Fort Erie’s future “tenuous.”

“They keep using the word growth in the report,” says Tropea “I don’t know how this is the recipe for growth when you cut everything in half.”

Tropea says the report virtually shuts out rural Ontario. “They (the government appointed panel) make vague mention of those (rural tracks) …saying they are an important part of the local communities, but they don’t talk about actually having racing there.”

Jim Henderson, owner of Hiawatha, isn’t surprised by the report’s recommendations. He had a hard time arranging dates for racing this year and is only start a live card on Saturday. He believes it has always been the government’s plan to get rid of small harness racing operations. “The government wanted to get rid of the racetrack program (in Sarnia) because we were direct competition to the Point Edward,” he says. “They wanted to get rid of us so they could get more money from the casino.”

Henderson is using this season as a trial run to see if he can make a go of the business without the slots on hand. “I’d like to try this year and see if it works…we ran 13 or 14 years without slots….maybe it can wor…it is just going take time.”

But in the meantime, Henderson and Tropea say the industry is already hurting, with horsemen downsizing operations but cutting their breeding program and euthanizing horses.

Tropea is predicting that the large breeders will be moving to the United States, where several jurisdictions are adopting the slots at racetracks model Ontario has just trashed. They’re offering more race dates and bigger purses and Tropea says in the end, the horsemen will go where they can race and make money. “A lot of the bigger stables set up satellite operations a portion of operation there and a portion here,” he says. “They are going to continue to race what they have, once the realization comes that it’s not financially feasible, my guess is those horses will be sold off this fall and they won’t replace them.”

“A lot of people have already left the province.”

Henderson agrees adding the effect of a smaller industry is already being felt in Sarnia-Lambton. “I can’t believe the changes in Sarnia on the Golden Mile,” near the horsepark. And the suppliers are feeling the pinch too. “I was talking to the guys at Suregrain Feed and they said ‘we don’t sell anything anymore… three vets from Windsor came here for the horses…now the vets don’t have any jobs.”

The panel will present its final report in October and the province hopes to make any changes in time for next spring’s season.

– Heather Wright