Last Saturday I talked about racing in Western Canada and the fragile state it's currently in. Now it's time to discuss the place everyone cares about: Ontario.
Everyone remembers about a year ago when the Ontario Government and the OLG announced they were ending the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP) and the industry flying into panic mode immediately after the announcement was made. As you may have read on Standardbred Canada, the SARP was 'highly successful' and ending it was completely unjustified according to every harness horsemen and many thoroughbred people I've talked to. Oddly, I've heard nothing from the Quarter Horse side of things.
For the first few months after the SARP cancellation announcement, I took the Standardbred Canada side of the argument, spewing all the garbage about how 'highly successful' the SARP was. But I started reading more than SC, and realized this program wasn't so successful after all.
The idea of the SARP was to rejuvenate racing in Ontario for both horsemen and bettors. The horsemen got what they wanted, purses in Ontario are great. The bettors got basically nothing.
Let's take a look at what harness bettors in Ontario have to deal with.
WEG takes only 13.65% from WPS and 17.2% from exactors and doubles. That's not too bad. Then you look at the Tri and Pick 4 and you begin to shake your head at the 21.7% taken from those. Every other wager, which at WEG is Supers and Pick 3s, 23.0%. WEG is a major circuit who made a lot of money from their slots over the course of the SARP. They gave bettors the cold shoulder, taking their status as a major circuit as an excuse to not care for the bettors who play their product, taking them for granted. That's a theme that's common when discussing WEG, and many other track operators.
Now, onto the B harness. Grand River: WPS: 20.7%, All others: 21.6%. Flamboro & Georgian: All wagers: 21.4%. Hiawatha: All wagers 21.3%. Kawartha: WPS, EX, Tri, DD: 18%, All others: 21.3%. Rideau Carleton: All but tri: 20.75%, triactor: 21.95%. Western Fair: WPS: 18.1%, Pick 4: 15%, All others: 23.0%. In shorter terms, the rake is high. Along with the high track, many of these tracks will race against each others, making their small handles smaller and smaller. The bettors got NOTHING from the SARP, even though 10% of the money generated by the program was supposed to go towards improving the racing PRODUCT. Not just the purses, but the product. Needless to say, the harness tracks are in a panic as to what they'll do come when their racing will be surviving on handle only.
Now, onto Ajax Downs, the home of Quarter Horse racing in Ontario. Ajax was transformed from Picov Downs, a bush track where 3 digit purses were common, into what it is now when the owners came to a deal with the OLG to put in slots and create and actual race track. All of a sudden, the low level Quarter Horses that raced for tiny purses started racing for some of the best overnight purses in Quarter Horse racing at a very nice facility.
I've been to Ajax Downs a couple of times, and both times the crowd was a very good size. People do go to Ajax, and enjoy the races. However, Ajax is only simulcasted on Tuesdays, and there are very few bettors anywhere outside of Ontario who care about Ontario Quarter Horse racing. Go look at some Equibase charts from Ajax. Take a minute so you understand the handle we're talking here. The fact that the takeout on every single wager is 21.3% doesn't help. What's worse is that they have done NOTHING to make themselves a legitimate product. No one from Ajax has taken advantage of any form of social media. Go search for Ajax Downs onTwitter. There's nothing there. The only semi-Ajax Downs related person on Twitter is me. Most bush tracks have taken advantage of social media. Look at Marquis Downs or the Rocky Mountain Turf Club. They have Twitter pages, and most of you probably haven't heard of them. I am in full support of growing Ontario's Quarter Horse industry, but apparently the Quarter Horse track isn't. That's a problem for an industry that I believe has a great facility and a serious potential to grow into something more respectable than what it already is.
Now finally, the Thoroughbreds. Woodbine has been successful at creating handle, mainly because they're a major track in a major city with important races. Note that all WEG Thoroughbred takeouts are the same as WEG harness, with the exception of triactor wagers. Thoroughbred triactor take out is 19.7%, 2% lower than harness. Woodbine has done a good job creating a greater interest in their product, with large Pick 4 guarantees and decent field size. Even without slot money, they'd be able to retain a fairly stable purse structure. Nothing compared to the current purse structures, but it would still be respectable. But like I said earlier, WEG does nothing for their bettors. They would be able to attract a lot of new handle if they would just lower the rake to something more reasonable.
Then there's Fort Erie. Fort Erie is standing on the last toe on the foot of it's last leg. It's sad because it's a very scenic place with a long and storied history. For a while during the SARP, the Fort really did well. The purses were good, the handle was good, attendance was good. Then politics made it tougher for Americans to come over and spend some time at the Border Oval. Bettors and slot players began spending their time at Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway. It didn't help that Fort Erie really wasn't doing much to save themselves. The backstretch there is awful. The grandstand isn't too well kept. Their big experiment to try and increase handle was introducing Quarter Horse racing, which makes no sense for an Ontario Thoroughbred track but I enjoyed it so alright. Needless to say it didn't work. I heard nothing from the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium about lowering the 22.9% takeout of every bet but WPS. I didn't spend any time at the backstretch there in 2012, but from what I heard it was no different than it was the previous year when I was there frequently. The FELRC did nothing but complain and make it sound like there was nothing but doom and gloom ahead.
And that's the sad state of Ontario racing. Not ONE race track has said anything about how they will make their racing product prosper and grow in the future. They've whined about the loss of slot money on and on. The grand solution to these tracks was to sign 2 year lease agreements with the OLG to keep slots at the tracks on a rent payment system. They're clinging to their slots like a scared child afraid of losing their mother. It's sad and pathetic. If the racetracks don't smarten up and do something about the state of their racing product, racing in Ontario will come to a screeching halt. Hopefully we don't let it get to that point.
Note: all harness takeout rates taken from a WEG Harness program from November 10th, 2012. All Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse takeouts taken from a WEG simulcast program from September 23rd, 2012.
Sorry this was so long. There's a lot more to be said about the current state of Ontario racing but I'll leave it here.