The December 14 Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission (APHRC) decision on simulcast wagering income distribution among Nova Scotia's pari-mutuel tracks has been a catalyst for debate.
Frank Balcolm chaired the APHRC panel on “setting intra-provincial boundaries for the purpose of limiting telephone account betting in Nova Scotia.” Back on November 14, representatives from Northside Downs, Inverness Raceway, and Truro Raceway presented their cases for allocation of revenue from so-called “telephone account betting,” which actually refers to online wagering (only legal across Canada via Woodbine’s Horseplayer Interactive and Dark Horse platforms); Woodbine was completely phasing out phone betting.
As Woodbine Entertainment Chief Technology, Innovation and Wagering Officer Chris Lush told me last month, for another article: “Believe it or not, we are just shutting down our IVR systems this year . IVR is the telephone betting. I’m hoping to have it shut down by New Year’s Eve. It’s funny, because …we still have, I think it’s in the tens of millions of dollars a year wagered through telephone betting. This is basically people using touch-tone phones to walk their way through a bet. Unfortunately, the systems that operate that and the hardware are all ‘end of life’ and I can't get replacements anymore.”
The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency (CPMA) amended its definition in 2020: “Telephone account betting allows anyone over the legal age to transmit bets via telephone, computer or mobile device to a racetrack where the patron has an account.”
The APHRC panel was composed of Balcolm and four commissioners from the three Maritime provinces (Stefan DeCourcey, NB; Lowell Crowe, NS; Bill Roloson, PEI; Jacinta Campbell, PEI). They considered arguments for and against a previous arrangement that saw “all tracks [having] access to the entire Province for the purpose of conducting telephone account betting,” with Truro Raceway “[acting] as the administrator” for revenue-sharing among the three NS tracks “according to an informal agreement.” For unspecified reasons, there was a “breakdown” of the agreement last year, resulting in the APHRC being asked to settle the matter.
The commission’s ruling favoured the two Cape Breton tracks, which had argued that the origin of most provincial wagering dollars does not support Truro receiving 63 percent of the total Nova Scotian online handle. Northside was receiving 22 percent and Inverness 15 percent of those dollars, despite more betting revenue being generated in Cape Breton County, home of Northside Downs (24.5 percent of provincial “telephone wagering” handle) and Inverness County (10.5 percent) than in Colchester County, home of Truro Raceway (7.7 percent).
Truro defended its receiving a higher percentage of revenues, based on various reasons, including: its teletheatre wagering home market (i.e. the entire NS mainland); current major renovations; its unique stakes and invitational races; and the fact that there is no longer a technological or legal reason to share wagering revenue across the whole province: “The betting software used to provide Telephone Account Wagering to customers is now capable of accommodating separate areas being assigned to separate tracks with reference to postal codes.”
Truro also disputed that the formula for distribution of online wagering revenue should follow the pattern of government funding allocation to the three NS racetracks, which it noted had recently changed to direct a greater share to the Cape Breton tracks: “In agreeing to the change with respect to Government funding, Truro Raceway emphasized that it did not agree to the same change being made to the revenue sharing arrangement with Telephone Account Betting and that the new Government funding model should not be seen as a precedent for Telephone Account Wagering.”
(The Nova Scotia Harness Racing Fund received $1-million in government funding last year, according to its March 31, 2022 Statement of Financial Position, an amount unchanged from 2021. Track-by-track distribution of money from this fund is not specified in the document.)
Truro Raceway argued that the strength of its “Horse Room” OTB at the Mill Cove Brew Pub in Bedford, NS (formerly known as Brewsters) should be considered a reason to allocate a greater share of provincial “telephone wagering”/online wagering revenue to the Bible Hill host track. The Halifax market has been without a track since Sackville Downs closed decades ago; Truro’s Horse Room was said to “help drive interest in the sport” in the most populated part of the province.
The APHRC panel ultimately agreed with the case made by the Cape Breton tracks: “After hearing from representatives of all three Nova Scotia racetracks, and reviewing the material submitted by each, the Commission is of the view that historic private revenue sharing arrangement related to Telephone Account Betting in Nova Scotia unfairly benefits Truro Raceway.”
The province was subsequently divided up into three new Telephone Account Betting boundary zones, with Northside Downs getting Cape Breton and Richmond Counties; Inverness Raceway being assigned mainland Pictou and Antigonish Counties, as well as Victoria and Inverness Counties; and Truro retaining the rest of the mainland counties, with the exception of Halifax Regional Municipality. The latter would now be divided by postal codes, so that the Cape Breton tracks received revenue from wagering at Dartmouth (different postal codes for each track), while Truro kept the remainder from HRM.
An appeal was expected; the Truro Harness Horse Owners Association (THHOA) had a meeting about the issue scheduled for Sunday, January 15 at the Truro Horsemen's Club, on an afternoon when freezing rain prevented some from attending. With only 14 race dates approved for Truro Raceway’s 2023 season (all Sundays, May 7-August 6), the message was clear: A smaller slice of the pari-mutuel pie means fewer live cards and potentially no Atlantic Grand Circuit Week.
The last published business plans of Nova Scotia Harness Racing Incorporated came out for the 2010/11 fiscal year. (The Nova Scotia Harness Racing Fund, administered by the Department of Agriculture, replaced NSHRI after March 2011.) The minister of agriculture/minister responsible for the Maritime Provinces Harness Racing Commission Act at the time, John MacDonell (NDP), described efforts to attract new wagering and fans: “Inverness and North Sydney are working on getting their live races out to other tracks for simulcasting. Truro Raceway is researching an additional teletheatre site.”
With all three tracks available on HPI last year, streaming their signals online, and Truro’s second OTB site at the Halifax casino (Poker and Ponies) unfortunately closed for some time now, it’s proof that wider availability is not the answer to declining handle and audience. Just being online, among so many other tracks, brings little attention. Sharing a source of revenue (telephone account betting) that comes from a small percentage of the Nova Scotian population requires careful consideration; growing that percentage of the population (actual bettors, not necessarily horse owners or trackside fans) should be a priority, in its own right.
As MacDonell wrote: “Nova Scotia’s industry recognizes that track sites cannot survive with only live racing and simulcast events. Increased competition in the gaming industry has contributed to this. A marketing study to identify the target audience would serve as a starting point for future direction. Promoting the industry to the public has become a priority.”
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