According to a recent study, humans have been domesticating horses for the past 6000 years. The first recorded horse race in Canada was on July 1st, 1767, on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City. Racing these majestic beasts, is one of the oldest sports in the world, a primitive contest of speed and stamina. This year horse racing in Canada has celebrated its 250 year anniversary, 250 years of the sport of kings. As the curtains are being pulled down on the 2017 season, it is time to consider the future of modern horse racing, the challenges it currently faces, and what is being done about it. In times gone by, Canada has boasted a thriving horse racing industry, catapulted by the popularity of the Canadian horse. There are currently 32 venues and 34 horse tracks in Canada, mostly in Ontario, BC, and Alberta. While Canadian thoroughbreds are still winning on the international stage, the industry in Canada is on the decline. With the mood amongst trainers and owners being grim. Horse racing has moved away from the days of state fairs towards a multi-million dollar industry, which has adapted to the encroachment of modern technology but failed to maintain the popularity of the sport. The Canadian horse racing industry has been battered by the 2008 global economic recession, the loss of gaming proceeds, shrinking purses and a dwindling supply of horses.
In Europe, Australia and some parts of Asia, the horse racing industry continues to flourish, but across Canada and North America, it is a growing concern. Fans started leaving in the 1990s and rates of attendance have been dropping ever since. The sport’s popularity has sunk considerably, with going to the races becoming a once a year, special event rather than a weekly pastime. This drop in the number of fans attending tracks has been further exacerbated by the lack of a national treasure that captures the Canadian public’s imagination for many years. There is yet to be a replacement that even matches the support of the nation since Canada’s favourite, Northern Dancer, and no horse has really captured public imagination since Zenyatta, who retired in 2010. But horse racing is not only lacking appeal from a fan standpoint, due to the ever-increasing use of technology, but betting software has also meant that people have 24-hour access to gambling at their fingertips. Those who use to love a day betting on the tracks are now gambling on their smartphones and computers at home. In years gone by, having a flutter on a horse was a past time enjoyed by many. But, today the younger generation are more likely to bet on football, soccer or hockey. Gambling on horses might be something that they do once a year, or a trip to the tracks for a special event only. Horse racing is no longer feasible from purely a betting standpoint, and this has been further perpetuated by the loss of gambling machines at tracks.
The Ontario Horse racing industry has particularly suffered as a result of their partnership with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation being terminated, ending the Slots at Racetracks program. This program had previously provided 20% of the gambling revenue, around $345 million per year and since 1998, slot machines across the country have been subsidising the industry. A measure that was successful beyond anyone’s dreams when it was first implemented, but one that worked as a band aid. Patching over the cracks, when the band aid was removed the state of the industry was open for everyone to see. It is even considered by some that the government decision to terminate this partnership has derailed the industry to a significant extent. Not only did it contributed 77% of the 5.7 billion dollar revenue that comes from horse racing each year, as the machines were pulled out, investors soon followed. Years of neglect have pushed the horse racing industry into the ground, temporarily bolstered by the slot machines, the industry is now facing real difficulties and the future is looking bleak. One of the biggest issues facing the modern horse racing industry in North America, is that of the horse shortage. The steady decline of annual foal crop has been worrying many people in the industry for years. The problem will only get worse, it is purely a matter of mathematics to surmise that with the continually decreasing foal crop comes a drastically decreased supply of breeding adults in years to come. This is then further perpetuated by the fact that not every horse owner wishes to breed their horse. A recent survey reported that 50% of horse owners who own mares do not intend to breed their horses. For many people, after the 2008 economic recension, owning a horse became something that they could no longer afford, and owning multiple horses was even harder. Gone are the days when people are likely to have several horses, and taking your primary horse out of the season to breed may not always be possible. In 2011, there were 9040 active racehorses in Ontario, by last year there was only 5121.
Whilst Ontario continues to be the heart of the Canadian horse racing industry, race meets are being cancelled, regularly. A scramble to fill cards in the final minutes before each race has become an all too frequent occurrence across Canadian race tracks. Breeding shortages have already resulted in a lower population of thoroughbred race horses, perpetuated by the economic crisis and declining popularity of the sport. Horse racing has been part of the very fabric of this country. But years of neglect and snobbery, followed by the loss of the slot machines in 2012, has resulted in a dire situation indeed. Many are calling for horse owners to be responsible and breed their horses to bolster foal crop. In response to this crisis the Canadian Horse racing industry has been doing its utmost to boost its figures. With racetracks offering family nights and betting tutorials, amongst other events, all designed to attract new fans to this majestic sport. They are increasingly attempting to formulate a long term solution that will solve all off the challenges that the industry currently faces. But in horse racing, there is never a shortage of hope. For those of us that love racing, it is a passion and people across the industry are working together to improve the Canadian horse racing industry. With partnerships between harness racing and thoroughbred racing for the first time, as well as commitment to positive PR and family friendly events, tracks have shown that they will do anything that they can to improve the situation. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a day at the races was a magical experience that everyone could enjoy. From the thrill of the win to the thrilling atmosphere, horse racing was a past time for all types of people.