Some of the noteworthy topics recently addressed in a state-of-the-union conversation with Ontario Racing (OR) Chair John Hayes include the need for industry unity, the achievements to date of the new OR Board of Directors, 2018, and reasons for optimism in 2019 and beyond.
A longtime horse racing fan and standardbred owner, Hayes has had successful roles with some of the most recognizable and respected companies in North America, including Home Depot, Black & Decker and General Electric.
His first love, however, has, and continues to be, horse racing.
“I grew up in Peterborough and lived close to the old Morrow Park, which was the precursor to Kawartha Downs,” recalled Hayes. “My brother, my friends and I would go to the racetrack every Saturday night in the summer and watch the races. I just fell in love with horse racing then. During my high school years I was part of the construction crew that helped build Kawartha Downs. I went to see Secretariat’s last race (at Woodbine). I still have the uncashed show ticket from that day.
“A lot of jobs I’ve had over the years involved travel. When I was on the road, I usually found the racetrack during off hours. Whether it was Chicago, New York, Kentucky, Maryland or California – I would go to the races. As a fractional standardbred owner for close to 25 years, I have had the good fortune to be associated with John Bax and his stable.”
GETTING ON BOARD
Last June, Hayes was appointed as the Independent Chairman of the Board for OR.
He previously served as Gaming Director with Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG), with operational responsibilities at Georgian Downs, Ajax Downs, Grand River Raceway, Woodbine, Mohawk and other racetracks across the province. He most recently served as an At-Large Director of OR.
In addition to Hayes, there are 10 seats, five from industry associations and five from racetracks, on OR’s Board of Directors.
Bill O’Donnell (President, COSA, on behalf of Standardbred Horse people), Sue Leslie (President, HBPA, on behalf of Thoroughbred Horse people), Bob Broadstock (President, Quarter Horse Racing Owners of Ontario, on behalf of Quarter Horse Horse people) and Walter Parkinson (President, SBOA, on behalf of Standardbred Breeders) represent the Associations on the board. The organization is currently seeking to fill its vacant Thoroughbred Breeders seat.
Jim Lawson (CEO, Woodbine Entertainment, on behalf, of Premier Thoroughbred Racetracks), Jim Thibert (CEO, Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, on behalf of Signature Thoroughbred Racetracks), Jessica Buckley (President, Woodbine Mohawk Park, on behalf of Premier Standardbred Racetracks), Hugh Mitchell (President, Western Fair District, on behalf of Signature Standardbred Racetracks) and Ian Fleming (General Manager, Clinton Raceway, on behalf of Grassroots Standardbred Racetracks) represent the racetracks.
“First of all, the Board encompasses and covers every aspect of racing in the province,” offered Hayes. “We have a wealth of experience in racetracks, breeders, owners, racetrack operators, industry associations, horse people… each one is vital to our business and represented well on the Board and in the various committees serving the Board.
“Members haven’t been afraid to speak up. At the end of the day, when a vote is called you might not have total agreement but everyone has had the opportunity to express their views. I’ve been impressed with the knowledge, commitment and passion each one of the board and committee members brings to the table.”
Hayes pointed out several successes OR experienced last year, topped by the signing of an historic 19-year funding agreement with the Ontario Government in May.
The Ontario Government will allot up to $105 million annually to horse racing industry stakeholders over a 19-year period. The funding will be used to sustain horse breeding and racing and includes purse management, operational expenses and capital improvements.
“The long-term funding agreement with the government was likely the key piece of work done in 2018,” offered Hayes. “At the end of the day, the funding program provides a base to move forward for the industry.”
Hayes also pointed out OR’s work with Government and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, as notable achievements.
“As each day passes, we’re getting closer and closer to Government,” said Hayes. “We’ve been to Queen’s Park a number of times with a number of more visits to come. We, as a collective force, are getting the word on racing out to the various government officials. In my opinion the industry has suffered in the past with too many voices with too may individual concerns, rather than representing the industry as a whole. With the OLG being the Government appointed administrator of horse racing in the Province, our work with them has been extremely positive, both from our side and theirs. There has been good back and forth with regular communication with OLG.”
He also took note of the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) appointment of Katherine Curry as the Executive Director of Ontario Racing Management (ORM is a subsidiary of WEG, created solely for the purpose of performing the operation of OR), as well as the work of OR-led committees as other high points from 2018.
“Katherine and her team have done an amazing job of putting the organization together to administer and manage the mandate of Ontario Racing,” praised Hayes. “I have been very impressed with the work of the Board committees, each committee has been staffed with key stakeholders and they have worked well together. I believe the committee work will continue to be the backbone of what we do.”
UP FOR THE CHALLENGES
Hayes and the Board of Directors regularly discuss wagering on Ontario’s three breeds, looking at ways to increase the numbers, opportunities to explore different options and attracting a larger fan base.
“We have to look at new revenue streams and the potential of new betting platforms,” he noted. “Betting was down in our home market again last year and that’s not a very healthy trend. The shrinking population of racing stock in the Province has had a very negative impact on betting handle. For our younger generations, horse racing for most hasn’t been part of their makeup. We have to continue the industry’s efforts to find the path to potential new customers.
“The current leasing situation at Western Fair is also concerning for both horsepeople and employees of the total entity. OR will fully support Western Fair in its efforts to secure a satisfactory leasing arrangement.”
Hayes is both passionate and steadfast in his belief that for Ontario horse racing to thrive, not simply survive, there is a necessity for unity amongst all breeds and their respective stakeholders.
The Sharon, ON resident cites collaboration and cohesiveness as major requirements for racing prosperity in the province.
“The recent agreements with Woodbine Entertainment and HBPA and COSA could not have come at a better time and will ensure stability at the top level of racing. One of the challenges we still have to overcome is a lack of unity,” said Hayes. “We’ve got to stop looking and focusing on what used to be, and use that energy to bring us to where we need to be in the future. The whole industry has to work together. It’s been a good start, but there’s still a lot of room to grow. It’s a very complex business with many moving parts and each of those parts must be in working unison with the rest of the business. We have to keep everybody working together.”
His message to those invested in Ontario racing… “I feel very good about our industry going forward and we are moving ahead. We are positioning the business for success heading into the future.”