Cowboy at Heart

As interim director of a new industry collective called Ontario Horse Racin

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There are spurs on his boots, but John Snobelen stops short of wearing his cowboy hat. Instead, the interim director of the new group called Ontario Horse Racing (OHR) has chosen a well-worn Singing Saint baseball cap from Adena Springs to cover his clean dome prior to saddling up a bay Quarter Horse mare named Josie at the Georgetown, ON farm that has been in his family for more than 42 years.

Is Snobelen’s choice of hats a coincidence or a smooth political move by a former provincial cabinet minister? You make the call. But to be fair, despite the fact Snobelen is a talented horseman who was inducted into the National Reining Horse Association’s Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1994, he has been reluctant to share his lifetime passion for horses with the racing crowd lest anyone think he is trying to portray himself as an expert on the sport.

“I didn’t want to try to match belt buckles with them,” Snobelen said. “What’s the point?”

Considering he is the man most responsible for implementing a dramatic overhaul of the horse racing industry in Ontario in the wake of the Liberal government’s cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP), Snobelen is well aware of the damage done and the challenges the industry faces even with a new five-year, $500 million government investment that began April 1.

“This was devastating,” he said of the end of SARP. “It was really, really hard on people. It happened in a way that couldn’t have been harder personally on some folks. So, for people to put that aside and to approach our mutual challenges with goodwill, that’s pretty extraordinary. By and large, people have done that.”

Not everyone is happy with the new reality, of course, but Snobelen said politics taught him how to handle criticism. Snobelen is a Progressive Conservative who served as the minister of education and the minister of natural resources in the 1990s under former premier Mike Harris during the time the government launched SARP.

For much of 2013, Snobelen was one of three former cabinet ministers on a bipartisan transition panel charged by premier Kathleen Wynne with rebuilding the horse racing industry. Snobelen worked with Liberal John Wilkinson and former NDP agriculture minister Elmer Buchanan to craft a plan they say lays the foundation for a more sustainable horse racing industry now that SARP is gone.

One of the transition panel’s chief recommendations was creating OHR to coordinate and brand all horse racing in the province, regardless of breed. OHR is a branch of the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC), which means Snobelen is still working with Buchanan, the new chair of the ORC.

“It’s a huge culture change for ORC,” Snobelen said. “It is set up as a regulatory body. We’ve now asked in our report for it to take on almost a schizophrenic role, to be an industry development arm and still to be a regulator. There’s still awkwardness about that and will be for a month or two to come.”

Snobelen said he’s pleased three big-picture items came to fruition by the April 1 deadline — eliminating home market areas and putting the entire province’s off-track betting network under the control of the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG); putting WEG in charge of Ontario’s Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) system through the company’s HorsePlayer Interactive (HPI) platform and the establishment of an eight-track Standardbred Alliance that heralds a new age of cooperation.

“It lets you put your product out in the marketplace in a better way. It’s got to be better for horsemen,” Snobelen said. “Really, the two key objectives we have is to get deeper penetration with the horseplayer market around the world and to attract new fans. (Consolidating) gives us a big leg up on both of those things. It also allows you to get some expertise together so you don’t have to replicate it time after time.”

On the off-track front, Ontario has moved from fiefdoms in which tracks controlled the teletheatres in their immediate areas, to a province-wide system in which the proceeds of all teletheatre wagering will be collected by WEG and distributed back to the tracks in the form of purses proportionate to each track’s overall share of live wagering. WEG has already opened a new Champions teletheatre in Chatham.

“I think bringing the home markets together so we have one home market area and we have one vendor and we can start to expand that network in an intelligent way, that’s a big win,” Snobelen said.

Snobelen said he sees it as a way to encourage tracks to try to grow live wagering.

“Ajax (Downs) is a classic example,” Snobelen said of the Quarter Horse track that offered huge purses under SARP because it is located in the Greater Toronto Area. “Their handle’s not good and probably is not going to get great, but the product has a market. It’s a challenging market for them right now, but, fan wise, they’re fabulous and it’s a great place to present the product to a lot of people.”

Snobelen said Ajax Downs needs, “a little extra help, which we’ve been able to do. They’ve got a reserve, so that helps them through the next couple of years while we make some shifts. But they’re probably the poster child for things that we need to do in terms of being able to monetize our fan base and I think they have some good ideas on how we might do that on how to reposition the product and sell it better… It wouldn’t be a bad place to mix in a few thoroughbred races and kind of enhance the overall mix. But we have to think about this as a system and think about how we present to people and who our audience is.”

Snobelen said Fort Erie Racetrack also has some challenges, particularly with location.

“They sit in a very competitive area. That’s the challenge side of it. The upside of it is, they’ve got huge community support, half-a-million dollars this year from the town is big,” he said. “It’s recognized as a major employer and kind of a historic site. It’s one of the highest tourist areas that we have in Ontario, so that’s an advantage. It’s in a close proximity to a major metropolitan area. That’s not all bad. How do you take those advantages and make a fiscal package that works? Part of it has to relate to other sources of income. No part of the horse industry works without some other form of income to help it along. I think their future depends on what other kinds of revenue streams can be sorted out in the medium term.”

One of the ideas is Historical Racing or Instant Racing machines that allow patrons to wager on races pulled from a video library of thousands of past dashes. The machines are widely considered to be a pari-mutuel gaming product, which means it’s believed the industry would have the legal right to keep the vast majority of the revenue from the machines.

“There’s been some thoughts about Instant Racing and how it might fit or might not fit (at Fort Erie),” Snobelen said. “People are talking about what would happen if we had a sports book in Ontario. Wouldn’t that be a logical site? Those are kind of out of my sphere right now, but that’s the future. The tenacity of the place is amazing. That’s pretty cool at some level.”

As for Woodbine, Snobelen said the company has made some commitments in exchange for running the province’s off-track and ADW system.

“There’s a transfer payment agreement right now that’s being negotiated with them that’s just in the final stages of being prepared, but, essentially, they’re required to make a capital investment, they’re required to do the things to bring their business acumen to it,” Snobelen said. “The split on the growth of the system is going to have 10 per cent put aside for the regional tracks. Much like that original funding was 90-10, we need some of that money to help us maintain and grow regional racing. That actually gives a lift and some hope for the future for parts of Ontario where the business case is not as strong. I think Woodbine’s excited about it and we’re excited about it.”

One of the criticisms of SARP is its failure to establish performance benchmarks and commitments to make capital improvements. Snobelen said the new funding formula comes with two sets of agreements attached.

“The first is an internal (Standardbred) Alliance agreement. It’s an agreement between the tracks on how they share revenues and how they share responsibilities. That’s going to drive some efficiencies and make racing possible in lots of places. The second set of agreements is in a transfer payment agreement with ORC. That agreement spells out benchmarks that need to be achieved over the course of the next five years. There’s a review at three years, but the way we’ve set it up is this year will be a year where we set the benchmarks. We’ll work with the industry to set benchmarks. We know what we want to measure and we want to use this year to make sure that’s not some arbitrary number that someone picked (at the ORC), that it’s actually a real live number that people can lean into.”

As for concerns the current funding formula isn’t enough to sustain the industry, Snobelen said the five-year, $500 million package is, “baseline funding. The industry needs an opportunity to grow from there.”

The much-promised integration with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (corporation) (OLG) is key to growing revenue. While it won’t happen quickly, Snobelen said both the government and the OLG have shown firm commitments to integration.

“The good news is, lots of folks are working on (integration),” Snobelen said. “The new chairman of the OLG, Phil Olsson, is working hard and personally on that side of the file. He’s very clearly engaged and absolutely wants to make sure he gets it right on the horse racing side. I don’t think everything is done, yet. In fact, there’s work going on right now, but he’s engaged, which is very, very important.”

Snobelen acknowledged there’s a lot of work still to be done to transform the industry and better focus on the betting patrons. Marketing will be a key component of OHR’s plan.

“We need to just invite people more into what is the best-kept secret in the world, which is: racehorses are kind of fun to watch… We’ve got to get a website up and off the ground. It will be really user-friendly, really focused on the public, really focused on fans, really telling our story to a new audience.

“We’ve got people from 175 or 180 countries that make their home in Ontario. One of the few things to combine all those countries is a common interest and history with horses. This is a world game and (Toronto) is a world city. I think there’s a synergy there that we have not even begun to explore, yet.

“The positioning of the industry with the public matters in terms of public support, too, because, obviously, we need to make our case with them that this is an industry worth keeping, not just because of the measures of jobs or all the metrics, because that’s the dry case. The heart case is, horse racing is actually a good thing and horses are good for people. It’s something you wouldn’t want to have missing from your Ontario.”

Snobelen knows from experience. He says he finds time to ride most days to clear his head, even when he has a busy schedule. On this misty morning — nearly three weeks after the Liberals’ attempt at a make-up call officially kicked in and a couple of weeks before a provincial election was called — Snobelen is riding Josie in the paddock beside his old barn and arena. His Aussie puppy named Blake is keeping pace with the mare’s every step, while a shy, older border collie named Bee Gee keeps watch from the sidelines. Snobelen shows off a few old tricks and seems positively blissful as Josie spins and then charges across the paddock.

Despite his choice of hats, all John Snobelen wanted to be when he was a kid was a cowboy. “Didn’t everybody?” he said, grinning.