John Hayes is chairman of Ontario Racing, a group founded in December of 2017 that aims to represent all the sport’s players in the province to present a unified voice in marketing the sport and lobbying lawmakers.
Its board includes representatives (or seats) of Ontario’s Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks, Quarter Horse breeders, Standardbred breeders, Thoroughbred breeders (position currently not filled by Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society representative), Standardbred horsemen, and Thoroughbred horsemen.
Its five committees include an executive committee, a Horse Improvement Program (HIP) committee, governance committee, horseplayer and customer committee, and a committee on equine welfare.
Hayes recently met with BloodHorse.com editor Frank Angst to discuss its marketing and legislative efforts, a plan to commit a larger percentage of HIP money to Thoroughbreds, and to address concerns from breeders that money could be shifted from breeder bonuses and stallion awards to purses.
In 2013 the government cancelled the Slots at Racetracks Program and slot machines located at the tracks are now controlled by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. In May 2018, Ontario committed up to a $105 million annual contribution to racing—total for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds—into 2038. That commitment is about a third of the previous SARP commitment.
In June Hayes was elected independent chairman of the Ontario Racing board. Hayes has served in finance and administration positions with General Electric, Black & Decker, and Home Depot. He has more than 25 years of experience as a Standardbred owner. and previously served as gaming director with Ontario Lottery and Gaming, with operational responsibilities at Georgian Downs, Ajax Downs, Grand River Raceway, Woodbine and other racetracks across the province. He most recently served as an at-large director of Ontario Racing.
Ontario Racing took full shape when the Standardbred Alliance voted in December of 2017 to merge the organizations.
BloodHorse: Could you describe Ontario Racing, how it came together?
John Hayes: Following the cancellation of the SARP program, the Ontario government was looking for a unified, cohesive body responsible for horse racing in the province. It’s non-profit, includes all the breeds, breeders, horse people, and racetracks, in essence to be the one voice of and for racing in the province.
I ended up being on the initial Ontario Racing board as a director at-large. With the formation of the new board in March and April, they asked if I would be the independent chair of the board.
BH: I understand racing has been part of your life for many years?
JH: I was born and raised in Peterborough, Ontario, basically in the shadow of the Peterborough racetrack (Morrow Park) to the point I would be there every night in the summer. I came to love horse racing, both Standardbred and Thoroughbred. From the Thoroughbred side, I remember being at Woodbine for Secretariat’s last race (the grade 2 Canadian International Championship Stakes)—I still have the uncashed show ticket.
When I started my working career, most of the jobs I had involved extensive travel and I always made it a point, whether it be California, Florida, Chicago, Kentucky—to hit the racetracks during the down times at work. I’ll confess to being a small time bettor, but I just love the thrill of horse racing.
Working at the General Electric plant in Evendale (Cincinnati area), a few of us went to the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been a fractional owner in harness racing for 25 years, all with the same trainer, John Bax. I think that says a lot, being with the same trainer for so long. I absolutely love the sport.
BH: What are some of your goals for this organization?
JH: We want to serve as a single voice for all facets of racing. Over the past nine months, we’ve made numerous trips to the Ontario government to push racing’s agenda and make sure they’re aware of exactly what they have here.
In Ontario there’s about 45,000 jobs that in some way, shape, or form are related to racing. Our estimates are there’s about $2 billion in economic activity that horse racing generates within the province. We directly employ about 17,500 people. It’s a fairly big company, a big operation. That represents everybody from the Sunday afternoon races at the fair tracks to Mohawk and Woodbine on the upper side of it.
We’re there to promote the industry. Horse racing got shuffled as casinos populated themselves throughout North America. In my opinion, racing handle suffered some because of that. We want to get out there and promote the business.
We want to determine our own destiny. We believe that there’s a path to self sufficiency in the province. Through the short-term, we need the government as a big supporter for policy development and allow us to make the big decisions on racing as we move forward.
BH: What were the reasons the Thoroughbred Improvement Program (component of HIP) was moved under the Ontario Racing umbrella?
JH: This year we will receive in excess of $100 million from the provincial government. The idea is to be fully transparent. We already were operating the Standardbred program and the Quarter Horse program. We had contracted with the CTHS to do the Thoroughbred program, which we’re going to move back in house—all under one roof—nothing to hide, not that it was an issue with the CTHS or anything. Just for transparency purposes and to have one unified voice, especially when we’re speaking with government. It’s all under one roof. (The CTHS) in essence still administer the funds based on what the committee determines.
BH: So you don’t see any big changes there?
BH: The CTHS expressed concern that the 25% commitment of TIP money to stallion awards and breeder bonuses could be moved to purses. Where is Ontario Racing on that issue?
JH: It would be a committee decision if that happens and the breeders are on the committee. I don’t see any big changes in the way those funds are administered right now. I think the board and the committee are both fairly comfortable with the way the money’s being spent at this point in time.
BH: On a different topic, in December Ontario Racing made a small change beginning this year to add a slightly larger percentage of HIP money on the Thoroughbred side.
JH: We have decided to change the breed allocations. It had been 50-50 between Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds. Over the next three years we will be moving to 55% Thoroughbred and 45% Standardbred of the total funds. That basically just reflects wagering in the province on horse racing.
BH: How will that change affect Thoroughbred racing?
JH: Hopefully it will provide some certainty. It’s a business where I think everybody understands risk. We are, as most jurisdictions in North America, facing lower horse populations. The idea would be to provide some certainty for owners and breeders to continue breeding horses, maintaining sale prices, getting the horses to the races, and having the races available for them to race.
BH: Do you see some opportunity for growth?
JH: Given my background working for the Ontario Lottery Group, the ideal would be expanding betting through the lottery network, which is at every gas station, convenience store, and supermarket in the province basically. It wouldn’t be so much that they’d handle bets on every race, but maybe featured races or one race a week just to drive some volume.
BH: What are some of the promotional ideas Ontario Racing has put forward?
JH: Within the province, Ontario Lottery and Gaming administers horse racing. Part of that mandate is promoting horse racing. We have had a pretty impactful promotional campaign—television anyway. Ontario Racing also helps at the individual tracks but the province-wide campaign is to get new people to the track and enjoying horse racing.
BH: What do you think are the advantages of having a group like this in place for Ontario racing?
JH: It is a unified group; conversely and I don’t know how well it worked in the past, but you’d have like three to five groups all lobbying—that might be too strong a word—with government. This allows us to promote racing as a whole. … It just provides a unified force to serve as the single voice of racing in the province. Racing basically had no unified presence before Ontario Racing was formed.
BH: Is there an initial message your group wants to get across to lawmakers?
JH: We’re here to promote the business because it is vital to Ontario. As I said earlier, 17,500 direct jobs and 45,000 indirect jobs. As each day passes, we’re becoming more and more entwined with government. We’re down at the legislature over the last few months at least once a week. We’re meeting individually with representatives, providing them with updates, asking for their support; I believe it’s getting there.
We have hired Katherine Curry as president of Ontario Racing Management and she has assembled the administrative team to execute the plans that Ontario Racing has. You think you know a lot about (horse racing), but it’s a business in this province with many moving parts. If you get one part that sinks, the whole thing can grind to a halt. We just want to keep moving forward.
BH: Does that message on jobs and economic impact get lawmakers’ attention?
JH: I would go so far to say that when the government originally cancelled the SARP program, it was the grassroots horse people that basically brought them to their senses (leading to HIP) because all of a sudden the government realized how many votes, especially outside the urban areas, were horse racing supporters.