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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Tough times for Canadian racing

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

They speak the same language as us in Canada but perhaps the expression "if it's not broke don't fix it" doesn't quite translate. Canadian racing had a long and successful partnership with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, a relationship that was pouring money into racing and the province. With the province's racetracks housing OLG operated slot machines the government collected billions of dollars over the years and horse racing's share of the slot money helped make Ontario harness and thoroughbred racing some of the best on the planet.

For now, the mood on the backstretch of Woodbine and at the many harness racing training centers in the area is one of anger.

But rather than celebrating the success of the program, which began in 1998, the government chose to dismantle it. Deciding that perhaps there was a better model for casino gaming in the province and that horse racing didn't deserve to share in the largesse, the plug was pulled on the Slots at Racetracks Program March 31. For better or for worse, horse racing on its own.

That will be the backdrop when Woodbine opens Saturday for its 2013 season, the first day of a new era that figures to present racing there with innumerable challenges. For now, the mood on the backstretch of Woodbine and at the many harness racing training centers in the area is one of anger. The thousands of people who make their living in the sport will tell you that the Ontario government needlessly made a mess of things, destroyed a partnership that was the ultimate in win-wins and threatened the very future of an important industry.

So when Woodbine opens Saturday the question everyone will be asking is where do we go from here?

As the 2013 Woodbine meet progresses there may not be many noticeable changes. The Ontario government has worked out a two-year deal with Woodbine that will keep the track open and, hopefully, operating fairly smoothly. The government agreed to give tracks money to cover their operating costs and the entire cut of the pari-mutuel handle will go toward purses. Those moves allowed Woodbine to maintain its 2012 purse levels and cobble together a stakes schedule through early July that still includes major events like the $1 million Queen's Plate.

That could change in the fall, when Woodbine typically offers a slew of major rich stakes races like the Canadian International, which was Secretariat's final race, and the Woodbine Mile. The stakes schedule beyond July 7 has yet to be released, which means cuts could be coming.

At the very least the government has given Woodbine and the rest of the Canadian racing industry time to come up with a plan to make racing thrive without the aid of slots.

Some still hold out hope that the Slots at Racetracks Program will be reinstated. That's not going to happen. Then there are the promises being made by the government which says it will come up with new ways to aid the racing industry, like sports betting and lottery bets linked to the runners. But how can you trust the politicians, the same politicians that created this problem in the first place? They've already thrown the sport under the bus, and they're not going to change.

Slot machines bring easy money and easy money brings complacency.

Racing can't afford to sit back and hope that something comes to its rescue. It needs to figure out a way to make horse racing work again or at least work well enough to keep one of the great racing circuits in North America healthy well into the future.

It won't be easy, but perhaps this is exactly what the game needed. Slot machines bring easy money and easy money brings complacency. It's not just in Ontario. It seems that everywhere there are slot machines innovation has gone out the window.

With slots out of the picture, Canadian racing will be forced to get better. It has to get the customers that it has betting more and it has to create new fans. Woodbine has already taken one small step in the right direction by lowering its takeout on win, place and show bets to 14.95 percent, the lowest rate in North America.

That's a start, but a lot more is going to have to be done. Still lower takeouts, shorter meets and jackpot style bets like Sweden's V-75 are other areas that need to be explored. Nothing will be easy, but this is a great game and it shouldn't need the crutch of slot machines to make it.

May Woodbine have a long and prosperous future. Now get to work.