Could race days be over at Sarnia's Hiawatha Horse Park?
The final race of the season this Saturday at Hiawatha Horse Park could also mark a more permanent end to racing as the facility struggles to keep up with the bills.
Owner Jim Henderson took a gamble, betting he could stay open even without revenues from slot machines, even as other tracks simply shut down.
But after 18 months and with little money left he says “I didn’t want to give up, I invested 25 years of my life into it…Before slots came we were fine, but with all these extra expenses, holy cow.”
In April 2012, 450 slot machines were removed from the race track, and millions of dollars in revenue left too.
Horses are still racing, but without the slots the driving range is nearly empty, as is the parking lot, and his once bustling restaurant – that once brought over $2 million in revenue – is closed.
Henderson says his food and beverage revenue last year was “Nothing. $40,000 or $50,000, not enough to cover the expenses.”
And the expenses keep piling up. Even with everything shut down Henderson says monthly hydro and water bills are still $25,000.
Last week Henderson was fined by the Ontario Racing Commission for not having enough money in his purse account – that’s the account used to pay horsepeople.
He says it was an accounting error that’s been fixed and there’s enough money in there for two years’ worth of races – but it’s unclear if the track can stay open.
“We don’t know how Hiawatha itself can survive for two years,” Henderson says.
Government numbers show that removing slots at racetracks, which was supposed to help nearby casinos and give the OLG a bigger cut of the money, hasn’t really worked.
In the 2010 fiscal year, OLG Casino Point Edward and Hiawatha brought in a combined $65.7 million. In 2011 it was $65 million.
But in 2012, the year the slots left Hiawatha, Point Edward’s casino only brought in $49 million. More recent numbers have not yet been made available.
Whether the numbers will prompt a change of heart in the provincial government is yet to be seen.
But Henderson says without an answer from them, he’ll have his, “There’s no compensation for us. Just close your business down and basically file bankruptcy.”
A five-year plan is expected to be presented by the Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel next month, including funding levels to help with the changes, but many think it will already be too late.