O'Donnell talks about Ontario racing
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He’s watched horse racing in Ontario endure good times and bad, but through it all, Bill O’Donnell refuses to be a pessimist.
Known as the "Magic Man" over a decorated Standardbred career that yielded 5,743 wins, numerous accolades and induction into multiple hall of fames, O’Donnell has pretty much seen it all over his time in the sport.
And while he’d be the first to admit challenges and horse racing go hand-in-hand, the native of Springhill, Nova Scotia, makes no apologies for his optimistic view of the industry in Ontario.
“The way that we are doing things now in Ontario, it’s given racetracks in the province more of an incentive to boost wagering and interest in racing,” said O’Donnell. “The long-term funding agreement was a huge enticement for the Ontario racing industry to work to grow the game and attract more people to the sport we all deeply care about.”
President of Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA) and on the board of directors for Ontario Racing (OR), O’Donnell sees racetrack handle as a major issue to focus on.
“Handle is the biggest thing, I think,” said the 1982 and 1984 Harness Tracks of America Driver of the Year award recipient. “We have to find ways to increase wagering – that’s our challenge. And it’s a challenge we are all committed to focusing on.”
Seeing the breeding industry thrive is another focal point for O’Donnell, who in 1985 became harness racing's first driver to eclipse $10 million in earnings in a single year.
“Breeding is obviously huge for racing here in Ontario,” he said. “We need to ensure that our sport is strong in this area, not only for the short-term, but for the long-term as well. Through the incentives we have in place and the boost in purses, all of that can be a big help for breeding.
“I know people going back to 2012, 2013 and 2014 that are now out of the business, but they are still fans. And if there was an opportunity to come back, they would. Hopefully, we see that happen.”
Figuring out ways to help current breeders, horsepeople and those looking to get involved in racing is on O’Donnell’s radar as it is with the other members of the OR Board of Directors.
Representing Standardbred horsepeople is a huge responsibility, O’Donnell acknowledged, but it’s a role he proudly embraces.
“From my days going back to OHRIA, things have changed immensely,” he offered. “Now, everyone is joining hands, whereas in earlier days everyone had their own agenda. With everything going through Ontario Racing Management (ORM), I think it’s very positive. We worked long and hard – along with (WEG CEO) Jim Lawson – to get the long-term funding done. So, in saying that, to be in a position going forward to help horsepeople, to have their voices heard, is very important to me.
“We’re all here to do our best to serve the industry. It’s not easy. I have to make decisions based on what is best for everyone I represent. That can be difficult sometimes. But as long as you believe in what you’re doing and are making those decisions for the right reasons, any criticism doesn’t sting as much.”
O’Donnell sees his role with COSA in the same way.
On April 1, 2019, it was announced that COSA would be offering benefit coverage to all Standardbred horsepeople in Ontario.
COSA will receive a percentage of purses paid by Ontario Racing member tracks to fund its benefit program, which includes Liability Insurance, Members Liability Insurance, Fire and Transportation Insurance and Supplemental Disability Insurance.
The free lifetime membership also offers a benefit program for caretakers at no cost. There’s also a subsidized benefit program for owners, trainers, drivers, blacksmiths, and tradespersons who have a valid Standardbred Canada and Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) license and Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) card.
“So far, so good,” said O’Donnell. “Our concern is to make sure people get the coverage they need. I don’t want to see people that have medical prescriptions of up to $18,000 a year… I would hate to see someone lose that. They can come over here seamlessly. I don’t want to see that happen, none of the directors at OR do. There was a gentleman that just came in and changed over. It’s been working well. It’s one of those things that you take on because it’s the right thing to do.”
As for a final thought he’d like to share with Ontario’s horsepeople, O’Donnell harkened back to wagering.
“I just think it’s more important now, more than it ever has been, to work together to see the handle increased at our racetracks, without a doubt. And that’s what we’re trying to do.” (Ontario Racing)