Strandardbred racing has taken a huge hit under the Liberals.
Strandardbred racing has taken a huge hit under the Liberals.

It’s hard to find a political pundit who called the outcome of Thursday’s provincial election. Could anyone have predicted Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals to win a strong majority government with 59 seats?

All the pollsters were predicting a horse race, but it quickly turned into a romp as the Liberals broke to the lead and ran away from the field. While it wasn’t much of a horse race, you may have figured out this election if you had hung around the racetrack for the past 12 months. There may also be some clues to the next agriculture minister.

Back in 2012, when Dalton McGuinty pulled the plug on the Slots At Racetrack Program (SARP), the horse racing industry was in a panic. The industry was crumbling and, for some reason, McGuinty had no concern for an industry that supported 50,000 jobs in rural Ontario. The end of SARP was one of McGuinty’s last missteps and it wasn’t long before he and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan left the building.

Someone needed to clean up the mess. Enter Kathleen Wynne. Part of her strategy was to build a bridge to rural Ontario. Wind and solar energy had become a fiasco and with the province’s manufacturing industry grinding to a halt, embracing agriculture as a budding star of Ontario’s economy made good sense. As Agriculture Minister, as it worked out, Wynne could also take the racing industry under her wing and teach it again to fly.

After taking over as premier in February 2013, Wynne immediately set upon reshaping the racing industry. It was obvious she meant business when she ousted Paul Godfrey, Chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and the man who convinced McGuinty and Duncan that ending the SARP program was a good thing.

Even with Godfrey’s dismissal, many in the horse racing industry were appalled last June to learn that Wynne planned to attend the North American Cup at Mohawk Racetrack, the biggest day on the Canadian standardbred racing calendar. With a packed house of more than 10,000 racing fans, Wynne walked onto the racetrack and soldiered through a chorus of boos and hisses as she promised to build a future for the racing industry.

That took guts. She then walked over to the paddock area and spoke face-to-face with some of the sport’s leading trainers and drivers, many whom had watched friends and colleagues lose their livelihoods in the wake of the SARP cancellation. Even driver Anthony MacDonald, who had already been nominated as the PC candidate for Guelph, gave Wynne props, Tweeting she’s “got balls.”

Winning over the horse racing industry should have been a piece of cake for Conservative leader Tim Hudak. He promised to reinstate the SARP program, if elected. While Hudak admitted a new program would not be as lucrative as the former one, it would put the industry back on stable footing with a chance to earn additional revenues from new table games and sports books at racetracks.

In March, Anthony MacDonald hosted a meeting for the industry to gain a better understanding of Hudak’s plan for racing. It was the first time I had seen the PC leader on his feet up close as he bid for support, and it did not go well. Hudak should have had this group eating out of the palm of his hand, but it was obvious he lacked the political tools needed to make a winning connection with not only horse racing people but voters in general.

On Thursday night, Ontario chose a party with a leader is was strategically superior, likeable, respected, and electable, despite the McGuinty baggage she carries.

Ironically, this weekend marks the one-year anniversary of Wynne’s gutsy visit to the North American Cup at Mohawk. I’m sure she won’t be attending this year. But it’s probably a good place to look for clues to who will win Cabinet posts. Anybody willing to bet on who wins the race for agriculture minister? Will Wynne keep her dual role? I’m taking bets!

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