The sounds of harness racing at Kawartha Downs will echo through the track for the last time March 30.
Track owner Harvey (Skip) Ambrose could not secure an agreement on transitional funding from the provincial government to keep the track open, which will end 40 years of horse racing at the Fraserville facility.
"Horse racing will end,” he said. "We at Kawartha Downs are unable to meet those terms. At this point, there is no transition funding that can be secured.”
In December, Kawartha Downs agreed to terms with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming on a lease agreement to have the Slots at Kawartha Downs continue to operate at the Fraserville facility after March 31, only without revenue sharing, until the province selects a private operator who will run a bundle of gaming facilities in the eastern Ontario area including Peterborough, Kingston and Belleville.
Kawartha Downs had earlier also announced that the 2013 Kawartha Speedway motor racing season at the Fraserville facility has been scrapped, except for the NASCAR Canadian Tire series championship race in the fall.
Dave Gibson, a local racer and the district representative of the Ontario Harness Horse Association, said he was devastated by the news that harness racing will end.
"I don’t even have words to describe how bad that is,” he said, calling on a cellphone from Woodbine Racetrack. "It’s terrible news for the local horse people and the people that work at Kawartha Downs.”
Local horsemen were anxiously awaiting the upcoming March 31 deadline, when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming's slots at racetracks revenue-sharing deal ends, hoping the province and smaller private tracks could come to an agreement on a new revenue model.
"It really comes as no surprise. Right now, the horse people aren’t involved whatsoever with any negotiations,” Gibson said. "We felt this was going to be a herculean task to get this done and obviously it couldn’t get done.”
Others, such as 55-year-old Terry Heffernan, who put his 50-acre farm outside Lakefield up for sale in December and sold five of his six race horses, said he foresaw the closure and decided to retire prematurely.
"I’m devastated. Absolutely,” said Heffernan, who purchased his farm 12 years ago and converted it to race horses when the slots at racetracks program began. "There are younger folks that are doing this that will never get the opportunity that I did to do it for a lifetime.”
Gibson said he intends to stay in the industry, but without a local track, it will be a tough go for other local racers, he said.
"Some people will just get out of the business. I’m not sure what they will do with the horses,” he said. "Not having a home race track…is going to make for a lot more travelling back and forth. People have purchased farms, bought property and have built barns and tracks for training and that investment, you can’t just walk away from.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Friday in Elora, Ont. that four new transitional funding agreements had been reached with Western Fair, Clinton, Hanover and Grand River racetracks — but not with Kawartha Downs.
Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal, who is now the new premier's rural affairs minister, had told The Examiner in January he hoped Kawartha Downs would reach a deal by late February to accept the provincial government's new funding offer. Leal is currently on holidays and could not be reached for comment Monday.
The province had earlier reached deals to keep horse racing going at the Woodbine thoroughbred and harness racing track in Toronto and the Mustang harness racing track in Campbellville, between Milton and Guelph.
Ontario will have a smaller but sustainable horse-racing industry with new sources of gaming revenue in the long run, Wynne said Friday.
The agreements announced Friday with the four southwestern Ontario racetracks, which Gibson said are all non-profit tracks, are the first step in moving the industry away from the Slot Revenue Sharing program — which last year put $345 million into horse racing — and into a new funding arrangement, she said.
The government said it intends to integrate horse racing into its provincial gaming strategy, but the premier refused to speculate on how much money the horse racing industry would receive under a new arrangement.
That should be a red flag for those who are considering staying in the industry, Heffernan said.
"The simple fact that she didn’t give any percentage or any numbers, that tells me it’s just smoke and mirrors,” he said. "I’m definitely getting out. I can’t run my farm the way I used to if I can’t race.” -HTA