Even after scoring two victories on behalf of thoroughbred horsepeople just a few days apart in December, Sue Leslie is keeping the celebrations muted. After nearly seven years of hardship since it was announced in 2012 that Ontario’s Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) was ending, the longtime president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario (HBPA) and the former president of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA) long ago learned not to get overly excited about the minor victories, especially since her membership still has some skepticism about its relationship with the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG).
On Dec. 16 it was announced HBPA had signed a new four-year racing contract with WEG that includes $18 million in new purses — an extra $4 million in each of the first two years and $5 million in each of the final two years of the deal that runs through 2022.
“We’re pretty happy about it. Nothing is ever perfect. We would have liked more, obviously, but we thought it was very important that some positive messaging went out to the industry as our meet came to an end,” Leslie said. “Certainly there is a lot of uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the industry. We struggled to get where we got, but we got there and it’s a good thing and it’s a positive message that everyone should feel good about.”
Two days after that deal was made public, OHRIA’s successor Ontario Racing (OR) — of which Leslie is a board member — announced it is changing the Horse Improvement Program (HIP) funding splits from 50/50 with the standardbreds back to the traditional splits based on pari-mutuel wagering. The changes will be phased in over three years to eventually get to a 55/45 split of the HIP funds in favour of the thoroughbreds that currently hold a 55/45 advantage in wagering. More on that in a moment.
Through it all, Leslie said she still has Fort Erie Race Track top of mind.
“I worry about Fort Erie. Fort Erie has been living with uncertainty since the ‘90s with so many unknowns. Hats off to the horsepeople down there. How they do it, I have no idea… We did get some negative feedback, ‘How come there’s a contract with Woodbine and there isn’t with Fort Erie?’ Well, we do have a contract with Fort Erie and it’s not ready to expire. So, there’s not a new agreement being negotiated, but we are meeting with them with respect to the additional funding that’s coming from government and there will be some changes there, but we’re not ready to make an announcement, yet. It’s not being ignored.”
Leslie has learned to take whatever victories the industry can get.
“Certainly the (HBPA) agreement (with Woodbine) was huge for our board and me, personally,” she said.
The last seven years of fighting to keep the industry solvent in a scary post-SARP reality has taken a toll on Leslie, who has been a key leader lobbying the government on behalf of horsepeople and working to craft a more sustainable future. Sometimes, she has taken the brunt of criticism from struggling horsepeople unhappy about the new reality. Yet, she said she is thankful to the many people that have reached out to offer their encouragement and support.
“I’ve got a bankers box plus full of letters from industry members, all three breeds, supporting and thanking me for various things over the last six years and thanking me for hanging in there,” Leslie said. “The negatives are hard to take, of course, but the support has far outweighed the negatives. People that are relatively content and appreciative, don’t tend to be outspoken about it, but they sure have communicated to me privately. For that I am very grateful. It sustained me through a lot of tough times.
“I think it’s important that people know that there is some balance within the industry, because I really believe the good people and the appreciative people and the people that are working hard far beyond me to stay in this industry, far outnumber the negativity.”
Leslie said the negativity that sometimes extends to WEG can be unfair. The racing outfit just has a different set of priorities.
“I think Woodbine understands that there is a lack of confidence, but they see their role as making sure that the long-term longevity and success of horse racing is secure. So, I think they’re being very cautious — I believe overly-cautious — in how they dispense money that they have available, to the industry. They have major projects going on and those projects require a lot of money. So, I think their intent is right, that they want to see horse racing succeed in the long term and they want to position the Woodbine Entertainment Group in a good way for the long term, but the short term can’t be put on hold,” Leslie said.
The goal, she said, is to educate Woodbine on the plight and needs of the horsepeople.
“Since the cancellation of SARP it’s just been horrible. It’s heartbreaking some of the things that have passed through my ears. I think sometimes people that don’t own or train or care for horses or ride horses, really appreciate not only the financial hardship, but the emotional hardship and the mental hardship of what we’ve been through. To those of us that are horsepeople, it’s not just a business, it’s not just a way to make a living, it’s a love affair with horses. People just sitting up in an office in a racetrack, they don’t have that same affiliation. So, I think it’s hard for them to relate.
“I think where the difficulty has been between horsepeople and Woodbine is that the long term isn’t going to matter if you don’t secure the short term. That’s really where, I think, the HBPA had to do a lot of work to help the management side of the industry understand that if you don’t shore up the short term, you’re not going to need to worry about what happens in the long term.”
Leslie said the HBPA board believes Woodbine had the balance wrong and was placing too much emphasis on five or 10 years from now and not on getting purses to a level today that would keep owners and trainers and caretakers in the business long enough to potentially reap the benefit from development of the Woodbine site and the track’s other long-term investment initiatives.
Leslie said WEG’s emphasis on future planning has bred some skepticism among HBPA members about Woodbine’s plans, particularly since there’s been no clarification, yet, on how the purse increase is going to be distributed.
“We’re trying to sit down with Woodbine to try and look at the big picture — how to use that money to best help the horse racing industry as a whole on the thoroughbred side,” Leslie said, adding that actions speak the loudest.
“I think it’s really important that WEG’s actions speak and not their words. Putting out press releases and doing interviews and saying positive things about how great things are going to be, I’m not saying you should never do it, but to a guy that’s trying to feed his family on Friday, he really doesn’t give a damn. He wants to see actions, he wants to see things being done, not being said, that indicate that people care about horse racing,” Leslie said.
“People are desperate. They need reassurance, they need confidence, they need to see things going on around them that tells them there’s a good future for horse racing. That’s what I think hasn’t been great. There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there and a lot less confidence.”
BREEDERS IN SERIOUS TROUBLE
Leslie said one of the least confident groups on the participant side is Ontario’s thoroughbred breeders.
“We’ve got a breeding industry that’s in serious trouble on the thoroughbred side. There’s the old tug of war where those in the breeding industry that breed locally and for the Ontario Sired program obviously feel that they are most important and they should get first consideration. Then, of course, you’ve got the owners and trainers that spend a lot of time in the States and spend a lot of money on horses. They don’t believe they’re being treated fairly because they feel there’s too much emphasis on the local horses. Again, balance. You have to have both,” Leslie said.
“We don’t have enough horses bred locally to run 133 days. We don’t have enough horses that are not bred locally to run 133 days. We need both. We’ve got to have a program that will encourage a guy in Kentucky or Florida that has an Ontario bred to send that horse to Canada to run. We’ve got to have a program good enough to entice them because we can’t stay operative for the length of time we’re open if we don’t. Then the flip side is, if we let our breeding industry deteriorate and we don’t have enough Ontario breds and enough Ontario Sired horses that are bred locally, bought locally and raced locally, we’re in the same predicament. We can’t live on outsiders. So, it’s a tough walk to find that balance to give enough encouragement on both sides, that both the open horses and the local horses will continue to supply. We have a horse shortage right now on the thoroughbred side that’s serious.”
At the moment, there’s very little to encourage breeders to produce horses, she said.
“I think the breeders are scrambling and I think it’s hard with the government removing the amount of money they did as rapidly as they did,” Leslie said.
“Believe me, the breeders have legitimate concerns about how they’re going to survive in this industry on the thoroughbred side. The reality is, well-bred, good-looking horses go to be sold in the States because they bring a lot more money. So, it’s hard to entice buyers from the States to come up to the local sales. You’re kind of relying on the same people breeding and the same people buying.”
She said the change in HIP splits should help a little, though it’s not a huge amount of new money.
CHANGING HIP SPLITS
Leslie said she was a big advocate at Ontario Racing for returning HIP funding to being based on pari-mutuel wagering since the HIP program grew out of the pari-mutuel tax reduction that came in 1995.
“It’s not about jobs, it’s not about who has the biggest farm, it’s not about who employs the most people, it’s about pari-mutuel wagering. I was there when it was conceived. I understand what the premise of it was then and was for years after… It’s not a breed favourtism thing, it’s a pari-mutuel tax reduction.
“It was arbitrarily changed (to a 50/50 split by the post-SARP horse racing transition panel) with no consultation with the industry… Why they did I don’t know. Once we found out it was changed… we were given reassurances that it was a temporary thing to get us over the hump because of all the confusion with SARP and the new transition money.”
The funding issue came to a head in recent years as total HIP funding dropped in line with a reduction in pari-mutuel wagering.
“The thoroughbred HIP committee just put their foot down and said, ‘Look, this is fundamentally unfair and we’re done. We want it fixed.’”
LESLIE DOESN’T REPRESENT BREEDERS
That said, Leslie stressed she doesn’t represent the thoroughbred breeders.
“I get criticized if I try to and I get criticized if I don’t, but it isn’t my job to represent the breeders and I just hope the CTHS (Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society) is able to come together as a board and work together and get changes made within HIP or outside of HIP that will truly benefit the breeding industry,” she said.
Though there has been criticism over the CTHS not being at the table with WEG, the reality is the HBPA is the contractual partner WEG must deal with on racing issues.
Besides, Leslie said too many people in the room too often leads to poor results.
“I don’t think either the HBPA or the CTHS should work in isolation of each other, but I also think we have a board of 11 at the HBPA and on some subjects it’s very, very hard to get consensus. Now if you’re going to add another board of 11 who have different interests and try to get 22 of us to consensus, I just don’t think it works — the interests and priorities of each board are too different,” she said.
STAYING POSITIVE, SPEAKING WITH ONE VOICE
Through some very difficult years, Leslie said the trick has been maintaining some optimism and staying as positive as possible, especially with a new Progressive Conservative provincial government in power.
“The negativity breeds more negativity. If we’re walking around the world — which many people do — talking about how bad our sales are, how bad our purses are, how we have a horse shortage, how owners are getting out… that’s not a good message. So, even if you believe it, stop saying it. That’s what I try to do. I try not to dwell on the negative. I do believe in our industry. I do believe Woodbine is trying to position itself for the long term. We have a new government. I still think there’s opportunity for new revenue streams, which we do desperately need, because there’s not enough money in the industry and there’s not enough money in pari-mutuel wagering to pay purses and run a racetrack the way it needs to be done.
“We can maybe get new products — sports betting, historical betting, a lottery ticket. There’s things out there, but we’ve got to show the world and show our government that we’re capable of working together and managing efficiently and giving and taking amongst ourselves. Otherwise, why would they jump in? They’ve said it to me 100 times, personally, face to face, right up to the premier’s office, ‘Get your act together. Speak through one voice. We don’t want to hear from 10 different associations.’ That’s why OHRIA got formed back in the ‘90s. Same reason. It worked. We got the pari-mutuel tax reduction, we got the slot deal.”
Recently, the thoroughbreds also got a purse increase and a bigger share of the HIP pie. Maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning