In early March, Mayor Steve Parish of Ajax, received the same gut wrenching news about his community that Fort Erie received in 2002. The Wynne Liberals informed Parrish that Ajax Downs, home of quarter horse racing, was losing its slots and the revenues and jobs that went along with it.
“We are still in the dark,” said Mayor Parish in an interview with The Niagara Independent. “It appears that the government has signed off on the relocation of the slots but there is a provincial election coming up and we will see what, if any, impact that has.”
In March of 2012 the Wynne Liberals made the same announcement about the slots in Fort Erie, at the Windsor Raceway and Hiawatha in Sarnia. The years since have been devastating for thoroughbred horse racing in these areas. Fort Erie has been especially hard hit.
To recap, in 1998 Premier Mike Harris and Fort Erie MPP Tim Hudak, announced the Slots at the Racetracks Program (SARP) for Ontario including the Fort Erie Racetrack. The Province, municipalities, horse racing industry and track owners would split the proceeds from each ‘racino’. This program worked spectacularly for racetrack communities as it provided investment in the tracks, steady purse money for horse racing, as well as a variety of new gaming and entertainment that made racetracks community hubs as well as tourist and gaming destinations. It ushered in the best years at horse racing tracks in Ontario.
Mayor Parish worked with Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop during the late 1990’s to help land slot machines at race tracks. “Wayne was part of the team that got the slots under the Harris government. He was a very effective leader of the slots at the track movement,” explained the Ajax Mayor.
When the Liberals came to office in 2003 they proceeded to run the program into the ground. The 2010 to 2014 Liberal minority, supported for four years by Andrea Howarth and the NDP, had made clear their thoroughbred horse racing plans. They began to characterize these revenue sharing agreements as ‘provincial grants’ and claimed the tracks couldn’t stand on their own without them. The Liberals put an end to SARP (which at the time was providing $345 million per year to the industry) pulled out the slot machines and looked to consolidate the industry at fewer, larger tracks and additional casinos. Many argue that it was simply a plot clearly designed to put all thoroughbred racing at Woodbine – politically fortifying ridings in their Liberal stronghold of Toronto ridings.
The political outcry was fast and furious. It forced the Liberals to start giving ‘grants’ each year to tracks like Fort Erie. Currently, horse tracks in Ontario are forced to wait on pins and needles to see how much funding, if any, they will receive. Last year’s grant was $7.8 million. Fort Erie continues to limp along on the backs of a community that simply loves its racing and won’t let it die in its town. But race days are down to less than 40; race cards are eight to 10 races, not the 10 or 12 races per day they used to be; races struggle to fill and purses are so small that the horsemen can barely feed their athletes with the available winnings. Thousands of animals have been put down, hundreds of workers have left the local racing scene for greener pastures elsewhere – or more often – have changed careers entirely.
With the most recent announcement at Ajax, it’s clear the Liberals will never turn the clock back and put slots back in Fort Erie.
Although Mayor Parish said, “it’s not over yet as far as we are concerned.” The mayor said he has had support from the local PC candidate and from PC leader Doug Ford. Despite writing to all party leaders he has heard nothing from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “I don’t think our community is a priority for them.”
The Ajax announcement makes the issue a political election football yet again. When led by Hudak, the Ontario PC’s had always pledged that they would return slots and the SARP to racetracks to let them continue to ‘earn’ their cut as they used to.
In March of this year, when asked about the Fort Erie situation, Horwath was unable to provide a firm answer on the future of slots at the Fort Erie racetrack. She was quoted as saying, “I’m tied by what the government has currently done and I have to have a look at that stuff before I can unequivocally say yes, we can definitely do that.”
In the meantime communities like Fort Erie, Ajax and Sarnia continue to limp along year to year hoping the industry can survive.