A former federal Liberal MP is launching a campaign to try to persuade the McGuinty government to put the brakes on its plan to remove slot machines from provincial horse racing tracks by early next year.
Dennis Mills, a long-time MP in Toronto's Danforth riding until 2004, says the decision by the government will drive thousands of people "from dignity to poverty."
Mr. Mills, who wants the province to conduct a review of the policy, has put together a website that will show clips of horsemen concerned about losing their livelihood. And about 100 billboards will pop up around Toronto.
As the Liberals took aim in their spring budget at a $15-billion deficit, one of the casualties was a 14-year-old agreement the province had with the 17 tracks in Ontario. The deal – worth some $345-million a year to the industry – was originally meant to replace a shortfall in wagering dollars as people bet on slot machines instead of horses.
Without the agreement and the provincial money, several of the tracks could fail, officials warn.
"There's not going to be a horse industry as we know it," Glenn Sikura, president of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society's Ontario division, said after the budget speech by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp (OLG) started the ball rolling by closing slots at racetracks in Windsor, Fort Erie and Sarnia at the end of April, putting 560 employees out of work.
At the time, OLG said the closings were part of a sweeping plan to expand and "modernize" gambling in the province to help eliminate Ontario's deficit. OLG plans to close or relocate "underperforming" facilities in favour of opening new ones closer to potential customers, including a Toronto-area casino, and expand slots beyond racetracks.
Mr. Mills will roll out his campaign on Friday – just before this weekend's $1-million Queen's Plate at Woodbine. The billboard campaign will unfold only in cities because Mr. Mills said the government has "very shrewdly" positioned the industry's cut from slot revenue as a "subsidy for the sport of kings."
Mr. Mills said the government, in its push to deal with the deficit, is focusing on the wrong solution by cancelling slots contracts that provided the government with more than a $1-billion in revenue a year. And in doing so, he said the province is using some unfair tactics to dismantle a large industry with economic reach into rural Ontario.
"The government has decided that most of the seats that understand this issue … are all rural seats. And they are mostly Conservative seats."
He is hoping to rally attention among urbanites to put pressure on their Liberal MPPs in cities.
Mr. Mills has a soft spot for horse racing. His father owned thoroughbred racehorses, and now he owns a handful of them, too. Mr. Mills said he is speaking for those in the racing industry that toil in the shedrow and work in the hayfields seven days a week.
So far, Mr. Mills has raised $40,000 for the campaign, about a quarter of it his own money.