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Submitted Letters's Blog


Burgess: Forced to Leave the Metro Toronto Market

Published: July 12, 2017 10:09 am ET

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July 5, 2017

Reading last Friday morning's edition of Harness Racing Update (HRU) from Dave Briggs was a very disturbing experience for me. HRU on Friday featured the sad death of the iconic Herve Filion, the premature retirements of Jamie Martin and Dr. Ted Clarke and HRU’s usual daily review containing the whole gamut of the seemingly unsolvable problems now faced by harness racing.

Unfortunately, almost everything we have always cherished about harness racing in Ontario seems to be gradually slipping away! And frankly very few of us seem to care! Collectively, we seem to be doing NOTHING to stop a steady deterioration in the quality of our racing product and in its importance and place in Ontario's entertainment and wagering worlds. The energy and the excitement and the crowds and nostalgia for the past are gone.

In my opinion, our standardbred horsemen should immediately RETAKE CONTROL of our destiny in Ontario and start to make our own decisions for our own benefit. Currently, we are allowing most important and life changing decisions for standardbred racing and breeding in Ontario to be made by others. Management at WEG is calling all the shots.

Many of these current decision makers at WEG and in Government are well-intentioned. Unfortunately, they have little background knowledge or understanding of our unique standardbred history in Ontario racing. However Mr. E. P. Taylor understood our standardbred history when many years ago he carefully acquired almost all of Ontario's charters for harness racing on behalf of his Ontario Jockey Club.

Today, Standardbred Racing should not be forced to leave its large financial investment at Woodbine and to leave its important Toronto customer market just because WEG's Thoroughbred Division has peremptorily decided that it must operate three separate race courses at Woodbine. This thoroughbred bounty includes two turf courses!

It is absolutely not equitable that we are going to be reduced to zero tracks in Toronto so that they can operate three! In addition, WEG's Thoroughbred Division still enjoys the luxury of superb backstretch stabling facilities while WEG has already abandoned our standardbred backstretch and dormitories.

In order to regain control of our destiny, I believe Ontario's standardbred horsemen need to acquire a proper understanding of TWO VERY IMPORTANT FINANCIAL MATTERS. Knowledge of these two financial matters is critical to understanding where we have been and where, in my opinion, we should be going with the Standardbred Division of WEG. Accordingly, a detailed comprehension of these two financial matters, as detailed on the next page of this letter, is fundamental to understanding our current difficulties with WEG management.

1) Standardbred Racing‘s large financial investment in the Woodbine Property

At the time of their sale of Greenwood Raceway in 1994 - Greenwood was standardbred racing’s "Toronto track" - the Board of Trustees of the Ontario Jockey Club confirmed and guaranteed that their Standardbred Racing Division WOULD NEVER BE WITHOUT A STANDARDBRED PRESENCE lN METROPOLITAN TORONTO!

This decision was made extremely clear to “the standardbred trustees" who were racing standardbred horses at Greenwood Raceway at that time. lt was also made clear when all of the OJC Trustees voted unanimously to approve the sale of Greenwood Raceway to developers AND TO MOVE STANDARDBRED RAClNG TO WOODBlNE!

Very expensive renovations were then retrofitted for Woodbine to accommodate harness racing. Woodbine’s main track was converted to accommodate winter standardbred racing. Ultimately, the gorgeous new standardbred paddock was constructed at a very significant cost.

Now WEG apparently wants to demolish ALL of these standard bred facilities at Woodbine (perhaps including the large decorative panels now in Woodbine's lobby honouring standardbred stakes winners at Woodbine for the past 17 years) and wants to spend many additional millions of dollars in a flawed attempt to winterize Mohawk. The extreme winter weather and the renowned prevailing fog at Mohawk and global warming will challenge the very feasibility of this false concept of winter racing at Mohawk. The Mohawk weather problem was properly understood by the Board of Trustees in 1994. The weather has not changed. Accordingly, it would be extremely foolhardy by WEG not to preserve our state of the art paddock at Woodbine at this time.

As a resident near Mohawk for the last forty five years I therefore anticipate standardbred racing being reduced through weather cancellations to racing one or two days a week for two or three months if WEG proceeds with winter racing at Mohawk. Standardbred horsemen will then be unable to survive the resultant and unnecessary loss of purse revenues.

To proceed to demolish our nine million dollar standardbred paddock at Woodbine prematurely is therefore wasteful to the extreme for WEG, particularly when neither of WEG's Racing Divisions is currently prospering and the hopes for viable winter racing at Mohawk are highly unlikely to be achieved.

A history lesson is therefore needed to clarify the situation. Through the remarkable foresight and benevolence of Mr. E. P. Taylor, both today‘s thoroughbred horsemen and today's standardbred horsemen will be able to share EQUALLY in the benefits of ownership of both the Woodbine and Mohawk real estate properties and facilities. Both sets of horsemen therefore are being protected in perpetuity by the farsighted actions of Mr. Taylor. Why? Because today WEG has NO SHAREHOLDERS. Standardbred horse people should take great pride in their continuing investments in both the Woodbine and Mohawk properties.

In addition to WEG irrationally destroying standard bred capital assets at Woodbine (that are worth perhaps twenty-five million dollars) the standardbred horsemen at Mohawk will be further penalized by having to operate with a twelve-month racing season at a single racetrack location. Historical examples of reductions to twelve month, single location meets in New York City (Yonkers-Roosevelt) and in Montreal (Blue Bonnets-Parc Richelieu) were extremely unsuccessful. Both of these major metropolitan standardbred circuits went out of business as a consequence of trying to race all year in a single location. Why should we be forced to attempt to follow these precedents?

It seems as if both attendance and betting handle deteriorate if there are no season closings and openings. The racing product cannot help but go stale and uninteresting to the public in these circumstances. To date WEG has expressed no remorse for its blatant attempt to place its standardbred horsemen in this untenable situation.

2) Rumoured Changes In WEG's Revenue Sharing Agreements

Because of WEG's proposed permanent standardbred racing switch to Mohawk, apparently there are recurrent rumours now circulating within the Thoroughbred Racing Division of WEG concerning its desire for changes in the current formula for Simulcast Revenue Sharing with the Standardbred Racing Division.

If these rumours are true the Thoroughbred Racing Division may suddenly try to increase its percentage over the 50 per cent agreed to by it under WEG's Simulcast Revenue Sharing Agreement negotiated and entered into with both groups of horsemen in 1998.

(By way of explanation Basic Purses in both Racing Divisions are now dependent upon the Government subsidies for purses distributed by the Ontario Lottery Corp. However, these Government subsidies to purses fall far short of the contribution to purses originally earned by horsemen under the Slots at Racetracks Program that was cancelled by the Ontario Government in 2013. The additional money distributed to both Divisions under the Simulcast Revenue Sharing Agreement of 1998 in turn augments Basic Purses and is very important).

This current rumoured interest in amending the WEG Simulcast Revenue Sharing Agreement by the Thoroughbred Racing Division follows almost 20 years of complete peace and harmony between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing Divisions following our Board of Trustees meetings held at The York Club in Toronto, that I attended as a trustee in 1998.

These agreements reached in 1998 for a 50-50 split of simulcast wagering proceeds were only settled unanimously at that meeting after very major negotiations between the Divisions and took into consideration many important factors. These major negotiations involved both the "thoroughbred trustees" who owned thoroughbred horses and the "standardbred trustees" who owned standardbred horses. Clearly, the issue of where and when the actual races were run and physically took place at WEG and the issue of the 50/50 division of the simulcast monies at that time were unrelated issues. And they still are!

Any change in the simulcast revenue sharing agreement, in favour of the Thoroughbred racing Division, is no more negotiable now than it was in 1998 when it was originally settled between the Divisions. The physical location of the various simulcast tracks is not material to this consideration. Undoubtedly, focus on this topic has returned because of WEG's frequently expressed intention to relegate standard bred racing to Milton (that it refers to as the fastest growing city in Ontario with 125,000 inhabitants) and away from Metropolitan Toronto with its potential 3,500,000 customers for thoroughbred racing!

No change is required here. If and when this fundamental issue is raised by WEG or its Thoroughbred Division we cannot bend as the issue of the Simulcast Revenue Sharing Agreement has been settled in perpetuity by WEG and must stay that way.


As outlined above in detail this is the most serious crisis ever faced by Standardbred Racing in Ontario. We have virtually lost control of our business. Surely it is the current responsibility of our horsemen's groups, COSA and OHHA, to work together effectively on a daily basis to protect our horsemen and the standardbred industry as a whole. A United Front will be critical! Obviously, racing at the "B" tracks will also be profoundly affected by any and all proposed changes in policy by WEG.

Last Friday morning both Bill O'Donnell of COSA and Brian Tropea of OHHA
confirmed to me that they intend to make the changes necessary to achieve a
united and strong front between COSA and OHHA. Hopefully this new cooperation will be extended to all of their future dealings with WEG, with other racetracks, and with all levels of Government. This good news is long overdue.

Please note that copies of this current Woodbine-Mohawk summary of affairs
(expressing only my opinions) have been emailed to the principal interested
parties, including the directors of COSA, the directors of OHHA, the directors of SBOA, James Lawson and other members of the senior executive of WEG, and the remaining "standardbred directors" of WEG, the Ontario directors and the senior executive members of Standardbred Canada and the senior executive staff of Ontario Racing.

l have also emailed additional copies of this current Woodbine-Mohawk summary of affairs to many interested standardbred owners, trainers and drivers.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert B. Burgess Q.C.

The views presented in Trot Blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Standardbred Canada.

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