Horse racing has a new top regulator in Ontario, but Tom Mungham, the new chief executive officer and registrar of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), said he largely plans to continue the work of his predecessor Jean Major, who retired on Sept. 4, 2020.

Prior to assuming the CEO position, Mungham spent 14 years as the chief operating officer for the AGCO, which regulates alcohol, gaming, cannabis retail and horse racing in the province.

Major was fond of saying, “regulators regulate and businesses run their business.” Mungham said he agrees with that philosophy.

“Regulators have a vital role to play, but the cost of regulation should not outweigh the benefits,” Mungham said. “Regulation should only address legitimate policy concerns and objectives. We have a responsibility to assess risk and layer in the appropriate level of regulatory oversight and activities. Removing red tape and excessive regulatory burden is something the AGCO strives to always achieve. As consumers’ desires shift, technology advances, and societal trends emerge, we have a responsibility to ensure we strike the right balance regulating while allowing businesses to thrive.”

Mungham said the horse racing industry can expect the AGCO to focus on ensuring integrity, safety and equine welfare are achieved, “without getting too prescriptive in how to get there. That’s something that, in racing, presents some interesting challenges for us because, obviously, when it comes to something like running a race, the rules need to be prescriptive. The trick is finding areas of the business of racing where we, as regulator, can step out a little and give the industry the chance to use their expertise. A good example of that is the recent change where the AGCO no longer administers colours: that’s a fee we no longer collect, and a process that the racetracks are figuring out for themselves and the horsepeople who race there.”

One of the results of focussing on outcomes, Mungham said, “is that oversight gets balanced with a real sense of a shared responsibility between the regulator and the industry, and I see some positive momentum on that side when I think about our work with Ontario Racing, OLG, the tracks and the horsepeople’s associations across the province. That is going to continue to be important as horse racing faces pressures like economic recovery from the pandemic, as well as the critical question of equine welfare and the public perception of racing.”

Modernizing Rules of Racing

One of Major’s bigger projects when the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) was merged with the AGCO in 2016 was updating the Rules of Racing. Mungham said that work will continue.

“If you look back to the merger and the year or so after that, the Moving Ahead initiative led to working groups on equine medication, health and safety and officiating, and each of those led to recommendations and considerations that are still reverberating today. The concussion protocol implemented last year, for example, is a direct result of those earlier consultations,” Mungham said.

“It’s important to remember that change takes time, and I am always conscious of how to modernize at the right pace: picking up speed when you need to and taking the time to consider things a bit more at other times. This past year has been a sprint, for sure, when you think about the pandemic and the impact on horse racing. We were able to put some changes in place to support the safe return to racing.

“The industry also faced equine outbreaks this year, and I am seeing some real momentum from many stakeholders on coming together to look at the question of biosecurity more holistically for the province, which is a really good sign.

“In terms of other broad changes, this April, there is a package of rule changes going into effect that we engaged the industry on in the fall that included a mix of changes brought to us by industry, and others that were part of our own rule updating efforts.”

Mungham said he does not have personal experience with the horse racing sector, other than “often going to the old Greenwood Raceway to catch a few standardbred races” in the 1970s. That said, he “quickly climbed a steep learning curve in 2016 when the AGCO merged with the ORC. Prior to that, Jean and (former ORC deputy registrar) Don Bourgeois often spoke passionately about horse racing.”

Where Mungham does have extensive experience that may be relevant to his new role at the AGCO is in his long work with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).

He spent the first five years of his career at an accounting firm and as a manager and bank auditor for the Royal Bank. He then joined the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario where he worked as a financial analyst at the Ministry of Correctional Services. In 1995, he joined the OPP as a its budget coordinator.

“I took on additional and progressively more senior roles leading several bureaus overseeing the business operations (such as) police vehicles and uniforms, and education and training,” Mungham said. “One of my prouder moments was working with officers and the government to get the resources and to establish the OPP’s Victim Crime Linkage Analysis System that followed from Mr. Justice Campbell’s report on the Bernardo investigation. The system greatly improved communications between police services and helped put in place measures to avoid future tragedies.

“More generally, as a civilian member, I really enjoyed the camaraderie and culture of the OPP. When I left the OPP and joined the AGCO, where there were some 160 OPP officers, I felt very much at home.”

While Mungham was at the OPP, he helped write the Cabinet submission that formed the AGCO in 1998, somewhat foreshadowing his later involvement at the Commission.

Despite his long association with the OPP, Mungham said, “enforcement of rules is not my first inclination when confronted with lack of compliance. That being said, race officials have a very difficult job making decisions in mere seconds and minutes. That is the nature of sport. In all cases we strive to do so with transparency and integrity. However, when it comes to making changes, we’ll take our time to seek stakeholders input into any rules of racing changes to ensure we get many perspectives.”

As for the role AGCO could play in helping unify a fractious horse racing industry, Mungham said, “unity needs to be an important goal for the industry for so many reasons. The main one, I think, is that the pressures faced across the board are so similar and interconnected.

“In terms of how AGCO can help, though it may not be popular every time, one of the things we are doing is finding ways to streamline rules and processes between breeds. Last year, when we launched our online licensing platform for racing, iAGCO, that was an opportunity to take a hard look at processes and align them. Now, for example, you can be a vet practising in both standardbred and thoroughbred racing under one licence. That may not be a big thing, but it’s a step.

“Another important way the AGCO can contribute to unifying the industry is in how we engage people on rule changes or other projects: we are committed to bringing people together (virtually these days of course) so that they can hear each other’s perspectives and collaborate.

“We value all stakeholder engagement comments, and we endeavour to find common ground among so many.

“We recognize the role played by Ontario Racing, racetracks, and the horsepeople associations.

“We strive to be collaborative and innovative — one tool we used in the fall was the ‘Bang the Table’ platform. Invitees to the industry engagements were provided with access to a centralized document with time to review suggestions made by others and contemplate their responses. Participants found it to be constructive and inclusive. It was very well received.”

As for racing fans and bettors, Mungham said the most important thing is trust.

“They need to have confidence in how the races are run, how the horses are protected and how fair the sport is,” Mungham said. “We know that trust is hard to gain, but all too easy to lose, and we try never to lose sight of that.”

Navigating COVID-19

Mungham said the AGCO has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic remarkably well, all things considered.

“A first priority was to ensure that everyone at the AGCO and their families were healthy and well. Already having a remote work arrangement in place helped us transition to our work from home model. We quickly mobilized to ensure that everyone was set up to continue working. I’m incredibly proud to say that we never missed a beat,” he said.

“We were also working tirelessly in support of the individuals, businesses, and associations in each of the sectors. We quickly adjusted licensing and registration fees, made some temporary rule changes to support the return to racing and helped ensure that, as a regulator, we were supporting industry in its efforts to take care of the horses and people that make racing happen. These include rules to provide Associations the discretion in payment and scheduling (or re-scheduling) of added money events, adjustments in the claiming provisions and rules to ensure that everyone can uphold social distancing requirements.”

As far as signals he is hearing from government about horse racing, Mungham said, “as an economic driver and community-builder in many parts of this province, racing is one of the many pieces of the economic recovery puzzle that the province, like the rest of the world, is looking to put on more solid ground. While I don’t have anything specific to share, I will say that every indication points to government being as committed as we are to ensuring that racing, like all the industries we regulate, can recover meaningfully from the pandemic’s impacts.

“What that means, for me, is that the AGCO will continue to keep its eyes on burden reduction opportunities and outcomes-based regulation that allows for flexibility, while still pushing forward with initiatives that keep horse welfare at the forefront.”

All the while, Mungham said he will continue to be guided by lessons he learned from working with Jean Major.

“I had the benefit of being mentored and coached by Jean for the better part of 14 years. I learned so much from Jean, I’ll be forever grateful. His advice came to me not in so many words but in observing him and his actions. He always strove to do the right thing for the right reasons. It didn’t matter if it was interacting with a member of the AGCO and OPP, a licensee or registrant, Minister, or a stakeholder – he gathered as much information as he could under whatever constraints may have existed, and even if it was potentially perilous to himself, he always tried to do the right thing. Of the many leaders I’ve known and worked with, Jean consistently acted with such incredible integrity.”