Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 3:35 PM
By Alex Campbell – BloodHorse
Just two days after the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. announced it will end the slots-at-racetracks program in the province in March 2013, the organization acted swiftly by revealing March 14 that slots parlors at Fort Erie Racetrack & Slots, Windsor Raceway, and Hiawatha Horse Park & Entertainment Centre will be closed by April 30, 2012.
The move has left the future of live horse racing in question at the three facilities, and there could be closures in the province, which has almost 20 racetracks.
“While this was a difficult decision to make, it was necessary,” OLG president and chief executive officer Rod Phillips said. “Fewer Americans are crossing the border to play slot machines at border sites. A decade ago, border casinos returned a net profit of $800 million a year. Today, that profit is less than $100 million and falling.”
Picturesque Fort Erie, which offers Thoroughbred racing from the spring into the fall, is across the border from Buffalo, N.Y. Windsor and Hiawatha, both harness tracks, are located across the border from the Detroit, Mich., metro area. Both Ontario locations also have non-racing casinos.
According to the OLG, slots revenue at the three tracks has decreased significantly since 2001, with Fort Erie’s decrease the highest of the three tracks. In 2001, slot machines at Fort Erie generated $129 million but that number has dwindled to $29 million in 2011.
Fort Erie, which offered average daily purses of about $100,000 in 2011, is one of two racetracks in the province to host live Thoroughbred racing, and the track also holds several Quarter Horse racing dates during the year. The track is set to hold its 115th anniversary celebration during the 2012 meet.
Currently, Fort Erie receives $5.6 million per year from the slots-at-racetracks program. With that money unavailable to the track beyond the 2012 meet, Fort Erie spokesperson Jim Thibert said he’s still hopeful the track can find a way to make up the difference in funding so it can continue live racing.
Thibert told the St. Catharines Standard the track can survive without slots money, but not at its current level of operation. “I’m sure horse racing will be around in one form or another,” he told the newspaper. “But right now, the government gives us $5.6 million, and we maintain racing at a $30 million level. That’s the part people seem to be missing.”
In response to the slots shutdown, Fort Erie issued a statement to horsemen and employees that the track’s 2012 season will be held as planned with the current purse structure intact. The track’s senior management will be working throughout the coming months on various scenarios for the 2013 season and will be informing licensees and the public on their progress throughout the 2012 meet.
Should Fort Erie have to close at the end of the 2012 meet, it would mean the end of 115 years of live racing in the border city and would also put the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, the 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales Stakes, in jeopardy.
Despite the fact Fort Erie may be able to save live racing beyond 2012, Windsor and Hiawatha may not be able to continue with live racing past this year.
Woodbine Entertainment Group, which operates Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway, issued a statement on the developments March 13. It gave no indication the two tracks are threatened.
“The announcement by the government to cancel the slots-at-racetracks program has immediate implications and raises serious concerns about the future of the horse racing and breeding in Ontario,” WEG president and chief executive officer Nick Eaves said. “At the same time, Woodbine Entertainment Group also recognizes the longer-term opportunities being presented by OLG’s modernization strategy.
“Given the success of our long-term partnership, WEG is committed to immediately commencing work with the government and the OLG to develop a mutually beneficial long-term plan–a plan that will best serve the customer, the government’s revenue objectives, and our company’s mandate to maximize financial performance in order to achieve the highest quality of horse racing.
“WEG has long held the position that Woodbine is the logical location for a casino in the Greater Toronto area. Clearly there is significant gaming customer interest at Woodbine, with over six million visitors annually. Similarly, Mohawk, with its one million visitors annually, provides a unique opportunity being located in Milton, which has been the fastest growing municipality in Canada for the last 10 years.”
Woodbine hosts Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, while Mohawk is a harness track. The two tracks have the highest pari-mutuel handle and purse payments in all of Canada.
My sympathy to the Thoroughbred Horsemen at Fort Erie, believe me the Michigan T.B. horsemen have lived with this pain right along. And I’m sorry for the jobs that this OLG is flushing down the toilet at these three racinos there. These are not just jobs they are people.
But an interesting observation is the fact that Detroit will lose their asses and employees with them when the two Ohio Casinos open in May as well. No more buses loaded with Ohioans coming to Detroit’s 3 Casinos here. Yet our great Governor here has made it well-known he is against expanded gaming. I don’t care what Mayor Bing thinks about anything. Michigan better get its ass in gear because they are now in an even better position to pick up the lost slack in revenue from Ohio’s grand openings with Windsor’s Race Track across the river shutting down their slot operation.
Think of how many more patrons we would pick up at our Race Tracks here who like to play the ponies and pull the slots all at one facility if we indeed had this type of gaming here. Horse Racing has taking enough of a hit since the 3 Detroit Casinos have opened in 1996.
Michigan in essence has thrown all who work in this Industry here (12,000+ jobs) to the wolves, yet it was Horse Racing that fed Michigan’s hand in revenue from 1933, 63 years before a commercial casino arose here. Fact it we fed Michigan alone for 39 before the lottery arrived and they had better think of a way not to lose anything more when Ohio Casinos open for business. And do it fast.
The Indian tribes weeks ago made some big announcement that they want to open 22 more Casinos throughout the State with 4 all in Romulus. Still can’t see how they thought that would happen. But it got a quick response out of Governor Snyder and Detroit’s Mayor.
Well Snyder better put his State first as in how do we gain back what we stand to lose in just 2 months. Detroit’s going to lose anyway but giving the Race Tracks something in any form may pick up the slack or pick up the money stack.
Windsor’s lost just may be our gain if this Governor and this entire State gets its head out of its ass. I’ve said all along we should be able to walk into a Casino and bet the Horses like Vegas and in the same respect we should be able to walk into a Race Track to play both the Horses and the Slots.
So Windsor Raceway as of April 30 is slot shut down and in May Ohio opens 2 Casinos, one just an hour away at Toledo. Those that haven’t be able to win at Detroit Casinos will go that hour just to see something new. So it’s not about Detroit anymore. It’s about this whole area losing even more business and revenue and we better jump at the chance to keep it all here.
That is if we really do have a money-making geek for a Governor here or just another plain empty promises ramble at the mouth speech making politician.
Detroit is Detroit but it doesn’t mean the whole State needs to suffer financially along with these Casinos loses. Fact is Ohio is opening soon and Windsor is shutting down one aspect. What else do you need to make an educated decision here?
Again a WIN-WIN situation if you have the brains.