It is the oldest continuously run stakes race in North America, older by close to two decades than the revered Kentucky Derby, opening jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown.
But the Queen’s Plate, the 153rd edition of which will run Sunday at Woodbine Racetrack, has a death sentence.
With the promised end of the slots at racetracks program, the golden helping hand that helped restore the shine to a rusting sport, the country’s biggest race and the industry that supports it are in jeopardy.
Such was the dire threat of Woodbine Entertainment Group president and CEO Nick Eaves in a measured, yet emotional, attack on the Ontario provincial government following Thursday’s post-position draw for the opening jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown.
“If we find ourselves on the first of April without an operating model that allows Woodbine to compete in the province’s gaming strategy, we aren’t able to operate and there can’t be a Queen’s Plate,” Eaves said, mere steps from Woodbine’s 3,000-strong slots facility that churns so much profit into the provincial coffers.
“It’s not a threat, it’s a practical reality.”
It may be a little bit of both, actually, as Eaves finally unleashed on the senseless initiative of Ontario’s Liberal government to end the lucrative slots at racetrack program at the end of March, 2013.
Will racing cease to exist without slot money? Not likely. But the slow, steady death march the sport was under before the slots program was introduced 14 years ago will be fast-tracked, taking down thousands of jobs with it.
So, how does a government extend a giant hypodermic needle to the neck of an industry for a swift and devastating euthanization in mere months?
That is the $345 million question (the cut of Ontario racetracks’ share of the slots profits, a fraction of the government share) the racing industry has been wrestling with since Ontario finance minister Dwight Duncan dropped the bombshell in March.
With behind-the-scenes attempts to negotiate flatly ignored by the government, Eaves felt the need to respond days before the most important race in the country and indeed one of Canada’s most historic sporting events.
“It would be a tragedy if the 153rd Queen’s Plate was the last Queen’s Plate,” Eaves said. “Look at the history and the tradition of the event. Look how it stacks up against other Canadian icons. It would be inexcusable.”
Look, it’s possible and indeed likely that part of Eaves message was posturing, tit-for-tat to the government’s ludicrous claim that the slots program “subsidized” racing. The racing industry as a whole has done itself few favours in recent years either and there is plenty to clean up in the sport to strengthen its perception with the public.
But by Eaves’ estimation, WEG’s operating revenue would be slashed by 50%, meaning purses for races such as the $1- million Plate would run for a mere pittance of what they are now. Money offered for claiming and conditioned races that fill up day-to-day cards would also be decimated, eventually forcing thousands of owners, breeders, trainers and more out of the only business many of them have known, leading Eaves to claim: “We can’t keep operating. It’s not possible.”
On one hand, wagering has never been better on the thoroughbred Woodbine product, with several recent weekend cards topping $4 million in total betting handle, thanks to huge exposure the races have been getting to bettors in New York. Such success is in part due to the strong, slot-assisted purses which help create big, competitive fields that are attractive to wager on.
On the other hand, with the government’s plan to expand gaming in the province — including putting slot machines in bingo parlours plus the possibility of legalized sports wagering — horse racing will be under the siege of even more government-operated competition.
“The reality is, our only legal competitor is the provincial government with their monopoly,” Eaves said. “The horse racing industry can’t expect to (survive) if it’s left out of the province’s gaming strategy, and forced to compete against it.”
There is the possibility that enough people in the general population (read voters) don’t care. The government would never admit it as part of its strategy, but overblown charges of animal cruelty and the sport’s inability to crack down on doping cheats make it tough to attract public sympathy.
But for every one of those negative perceptions, there is a positive one. This Sunday, there is trainer Roger Attfield going for a record ninth Plate win, or Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk going for a second. There will be 14 horses in Sunday’s race, all with breeders, owners, jockeys, trainer and grooms and a grandstand full of 20,000 plus cheering them on.
Is the Sport of Kings what it once was? Not a chance. But is that any reason to put it down?