The 2012 Woodbine Thoroughbred meeting is down to its final few weeks but the off-track action is really heating up as Ontario's horse industry fights for its survival in the wake of a provincial government decision earlier this year to end the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's slots at racetrack program, which funds a significant portion of purses and breeders' awards.
One of those working to ensure a sustainable future for Ontario's horse industry and the 50,000-plus jobs it generates is Thoroughbred breeder Dennis Mills, a former politician who served as a member of Canada's parliament for more than 15 years. In the private sector, Mills worked for Frank Stronach as CEO of MI Developments, the real estate arm of Magna International that took control of Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park and several other racetracks after Stronach-controlled MEC filed for bankruptcy.
Mills is the founder of Racing Future, Inc., an advocacy group hoping to educate government, including its Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel, on the benefits of a healthy horse industry. Racing Future is also devoted to increasing racing's awareness with the public, particularly the 20- to 40-year-old members of the millennial generation.
What motivated you to start Racing Future?
The initial inspiration for Racing Future was during the period that I had the responsibility for MI Developments for the racetracks that we bought from the MEC Chapter 11. The whole idea was inspired, first of all, by somebody suggesting because we had a large number of racetracks, that I should seek the possibility of being on the Breeders' Cup board. So we put up the website just to introduce who I am and where I stand.
We then integrated into that the concept of reaching out for ideas to make the sport better. I was pleasantly surprised that we had over 1,000 responses. I lost the Breeders' Cup election, but during that experience some of the best minds in horse racing from around the world sent all kinds of interesting submissions. We published the top 20 and on we go.
When my tenure as CEO at MID was over and Frank (Stronach) owned the tracks privately, I reflected on things and decided to do something critical for the future of the sport. I wanted to educate and evolve the millennial generation, people from 20 to 40 years old
Then, three days before this past Kentucky Derby, I was in a pub near my farm and a bunch of guys approached me, lamenting the fact that our province had terminated all the contracts for slots at the racetracks. They asked me to help.
I said I'd do it under two conditions: First, I will work pro bono. But I also said we've got to get urban people, city people, involved, because they do not understand our sport. And the journey began.
What was the objective?
The objective in the last five months has been to gather enough public pressure to cause the government to rethink their very draconian decision. We did that by posting close to 100 billboards in the city area, on subways, in strategic locations near some of the legislators. We took to the airwaves on radio stations.
The purpose was to educate people and to cause the government to say they can't put the lives of 55,000 people at risk; and, secondly, why destroy a partnership that was contributing $1.2 billion to the treasury of Ontario? Why would they do anything like that? Never mind the number of jobs, but just consider the amount of money this proven program brought to the treasury. The government's decision really was a mystery. There was no logic to it.
So the government appointed a panel of former senior legislators (the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel), and they started listening to people in the sport. They began to develop a new approach, started giving government new ideas to work with the racetracks, in part because the sustainability and growth of the business is critical, especially when you have places like Woodbine that have global exports.
What do you mean by global exports?
A lot of legislators do not think of racing as an export product. They don't realize the content of the races at Woodbine are seen and bet on in 1,500 locations around the world. A piece of that bet comes back into the pari-mutuel system, which governments receive a part of. The second part of this export that most legislators don't understand is that every single racehorse in this year's Kentucky Derby can trace back to (Canadian-bred) Nearctic through Northern Dancer. There was a Canadian presence in every one of those horses. The presence of the Northern Dancer progeny is global.
There obviously are advantages to being a former member of parliament as far as understanding what moves politicians to act on issues. Can you share some of those insights?
There is a disconnect between what city people care about and what rural people care about. That gap is getting wider as every year passes, and it doesn't matter if you are in Canada or the United states. The gap exists.
Legislators listen to constituents. If the constituents aren't making noise, legislators don't care. That is what this government did. They saw that the city legislators weren't getting any noise about terminating the slots program, so government saw a free pathway.
Having spent 20 years in public service, 16 of it elected, I knew it was fundamental, and our number one priority, that if we are going to be successful, we had to gather city support. It doesn't matter where you are, city people will rally when they know rural people are treated unfairly. Our research shows that and I know that from my years in public service.
I'd had previous experience in getting city people to rally for a rural issue. I think if there is one thing that we in the sport of horse racing have to deal with, we must be more aggressive in educating city people about our sport, and at the same time educating legislators as to the importance of our sport in an economic sense. All of us in the sport have done a poor job of this.
Where have you and Racing Future focused your energies?
I thought this was going to be a three-month exercise. We are now into five and a half months, and it's almost full time. We now have the (Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel's) final report, we know they are currently negotiating race dates, the government has given the panel a quantum of money, we know they are negotiating with racetracks now to look forward to the 2013 season.
I don't believe we are going to get the whole loaf, what we had before, but if we can get 60 to 65% we are well on our way to sustaining and growing the sport. One thing we've learned is that we have to continue to educate people and make sure legislators don't pull this trick on us again.
What progress has been made?
The progress culminates in the panel's final report (click here to read Racing Future's response). Point two is we now have the panel negotiating with tracks. Point three, as for our immediate challenges, there is a campaign by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission focused on putting casinos in major urban areas. Racetrack attention is in second place. We now have to force or challenge the government to put the racetrack, the farmers and horses first, and the casinos second. We have to direct government to forget about casinos until we put the contracts with the horse industry to bed. The next few weeks are critical.
What level of confidence should Canadian breeders have going into the 2013 breeding season that there will be an outlet for their product?
In the very first announcement by the panel after the final report was submitted, they made the commitment that the level of breeders' incentives for both Thoroughbred and Standardbreds would be the same as in 2012. That to me was a very strong signal that the government is starting to really understand the timelines that are so sensitive in the planning of the breeding season. That announcement was made just before the Breeders' Cup. That was a key signal they sent. They are saying, “We understand that if people are going to plan their breeding season, that incentive must be in place.”
Is there any way to protect the long-term interests of the horse community, or will this be an ongoing campaign?
There are two things we must do. First of all, we have to realize the panel stated very clearly that the sport of horse racing has to reinvent itself. They were very specific on that, saying you have to put more money into marketing and bringing new fans into the business. They also said you have to create new instruments to raise the revenue base.
One thing they were very specific about was the creation of a lottery bet. The OLG has 12,000 lottery outlets in the province of Ontario. As of this moment, there is absolutely zero presence or product for the sport of racing in those outlets. The panel said there must be a horse racing lottery bet. The technology exists. Maybe it's every Saturday, once a week. Wherever you are you've got 12,000 outlets that can promote racing. The panel was very specific that the OLG has to put this in place. This will reach people who know nothing about the sport, it will start sensitizing people – all of a sudden you are going to be following racing because of a connection to the lottery. It will bring awareness to new fans that know nothing about our sport.
We at Racing Future have been saying you've got to reach out to younger people. These millennials are technology savvy. You can bet, watch, educate yourself right on your walkabout office. We've got to get that generation involved in our sport.
The leadership of our sport has to become much more populist in its approach to getting people involved, and be less turf club lounge centric. There is not enough diverse thinking in our sport. We've got to bring in people, who, even though may know little about our sport, do know how to market. I believe we have to change it from the sport of kings to the sport of the people.
You can have a Kentucky Derby where the whole world is watching. It's not as if getting the large numbers doesn't exist. We've got to figure out a way to do this 15 or 20 times a year.
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