The Ontario Harness Horse Association vows to fight efforts to eliminate the union which represents Kawartha Downs horsepeople.
Ontario Racing announced it will stop funding the OHHA, which represents 2,600 horsepeople, as of March 31. Ontario Racing stated it will only recognize the Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA) since it is an OR member.
OHHA has refused to join OR as it opposes some of the terms of its 19-year funding agreement implemented last year by the former Liberal government. The agreement allows for organizations and race tracks to sign on up to April 1, 2019.
Kawartha Downs is one of three tracks, along with Leamington and Hiawatha, to not sign the agreement. All three are operating on two-year funding agreements.
OHHA receives its funding from OR through deductions from purse money it uses to administer benefits, insurance and RRSPs for its members.
Horsepeople will lose their voice if OHHA dies, said OHHA general manager Brian Tropea. It should not be up to OR to dictate to horsepeople who will represent them, he said. He’s compared it to a car company choosing which union its employees must join.
“We’re lobbying for a democratic process to allow horsepeople to determine who they want to represent them,” Tropea said.
He says it’s an attempt by OR to silence OHHA.
“We’ve been quite critical of the long-term funding deal and the fact it doesn’t give the horsepeople the protections needed. It puts too much power into the hands of the racetrack operators. They see us as a thorn in their side.”
Tropea says a number of amendments to the funding agreement would have to be made for OHHA to sign on.
“There is no language in the agreement which talks about revenue sharing from additional revenue streams that come to the industry,” he said.
“By signing the agreement we turn over our intellectual property rights to Ontario Race Management which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Woodbine Entertainment Group. That means any date or video signals sold on behalf of the industry, that horsepeople get a share of revenue from, we’d be turning over those rights to an entity we wouldn’t have any say in. That’s really concerning for us.
“We would also lose our autonomy.”
Tropea says COSA is run by a board hand-picked by OR and currently represents only horsepeople at Woodbine Mohawk Park.
OHHA has represented area horsepeople for 57 years and local trainer and OHHA rep Dave Gibson says he’s backing their fight for survival.
“The attempts by Woodbine Entertainment Group and Ontario Racing to withdraw funding from OHHA will have a more significant impact on horsepeople than simply who administers benefits, insurance and RRSP matters,” Gibson said.
“OHHA fought to keep our industry alive following the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program. OHHA fought alongside local horsepeople to keep Kawartha Downs open when we were all but abandoned by the previous government. I can’t imagine where we’d be without OHHA.”
Tropea is calling upon the provincial government to help protect OHHA.
“We’re here to stay and have begun working with the government to solve this,” Tropea said.
“We’re continuing to manage benefits and to provide representation to standardbred horsepeople in Ontario. We are asking our supporters to renew their memberships and not to join Ontario Racing’s chosen horsepeople’s group while we fight to reverse this decision.”
Labour Minister and Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott said more dialogue is needed.
“I encourage all parties to sit down in order to develop a workable solution,” Scott said. “Our government remains committed to the success of the horse racing industry across the province.”
OR executive director Katherine Curry didn’t immediately respond to an interview request.