On a recent Saturday night in sprawling north Etobicoke, Woodbine Racetrack is busy. Not peak-season busy, but full enough.
There's a slate of harness races scheduled, and although most of the hundreds of fans here are content to watch from the warm, glass-walled observation deck high above the track, as post time approaches a few of the more dedicated - those with the most money at stake, perhaps - force open the glass doors that have been shut for the winter and walk down into the bleachers to get closer to the action.
For a moment, as the horses pound toward the finish line, shouting from the small crowd in the stands drowns out the sound of cars zipping along nearby Highway 427. It's a close race - a long shot named Real Housewife comes in first, at 20 to 1 - and when it's done, the punters shuffle back inside to wait for the next heat.
Chances are, these men who spend the weekend at the track betting their paycheques on the ponies are no strangers to the occasional pang of desperation. But these days, despite the decent crowds, it's Woodbine itself that's feeling desperate.
Desperate for a casino.
"We see [a casino] as absolutely a key priority for our long-term sustainability," says Jane Holmes, vice-president of corporate affairs for Woodbine Entertainment Group, the non-profit company that runs the track.
Both publicly and behind the scenes at City Hall, WEG is pushing hard for a casino. A billboard at the track's entrance urges customers to "Support a casino in Gaming Zone C2," the name given to the patch of land straddling Etobicoke, Richmond Hill, Mississauga and Markham that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation says is ripe for a casino. Meanwhile, Holmes is a registered lobbyist and has logged 28 contacts with council members and their staffers since October, according to the lobbyist registry.
Holmes says WEG is interested in operating a casino on its own but has also "had discussions with different operators," although she won't say which ones. Despite the assertions of casino giants like MGM that the site couldn't support anything larger than a stand-alone gambling hall, Holmes says the company is angling for an "integrated entertainment complex" that would include convention space, hotels and retail.
WEG's previous best hope for redevelopment fell through this month when the Woodbine Live project collapsed. And now, like racetracks across Ontario, Woodbine is in big trouble. Last year the province announced that it was ending its Slots at Racetracks program, which for the past 13 years has provided roughly $345 million in annual subsidies to the horse racing industry in the form of 20 per cent of the take from OLG slot machines installed at the tracks.
Queen's Park has agreed to give racetracks an undisclosed amount of "transition funding" over the next two years to keep the ponies running, but unless a new revenue stream is in place by 2015, Holmes suggests it could be curtains for the "sport of kings" in southern Ontario.
"There is no certainty after those two years," Holmes says. "It puts the whole racing operation at risk."
Already, Woodbine is being forced to run a reduced schedule in 2013. The thoroughbred season won't start until April 20, three weeks later than usual, and the track will run fewer races each week. Layoffs have started as well: in mid-February, WEG trimmed 109 jobs at Woodbine and its Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville.
More jobs will be lost if horse racing dies. By some estimates, the industry and its spinoffs employ between 55,000 and 60,000 Ontarians, providing jobs for jockeys, trainers, vets, racetrack staff and farmers throughout the province.
As WEG would frame it, you're either for bringing a casino to the racetrack or you're against those jobs. But Councillor Adam Vaughan says that's a false choice.
Anti-casino and pro-horse-racing sentiments both run deep in the councillor for Trinity-Spadina. He's among the most vocal opponents of building a casino downtown, but as the son of a racing fanatic (his mother named him after a famous Australian racehorse owner), he feels putting the horse industry out to pasture would be unconscionable.
More than jobs are at stake, Vaughan says. He argues that the southern Ontario farmers sustained by horse racing are vital to maintaining the Green Belt, the 1.8 million acres of protected agricultural land and green space outside Toronto that keeps suburban sprawl contained.
But despite his love for the industry, Vaughan says a casino would do too much harm to the area around Woodbine.
"Putting a bigger casino up there will only further damage the land values and further sterilize the area around the casino," he says. "It's not a catalyst for economic growth; it's a catalyst for economic sterility." He says horse racing can still be saved, but only if OLG agrees to reinstate the subsidy.
A key argument for those who want Woodbine to get a casino is that for most intents and purposes it already has one. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you can walk into Woodbine and play one of the 3,000 slot machines and digital table games OLG operates on-site. The games, with names like Hexbreaker 2, Kitty Glitter and Pharaoh's Fortune, are already a much bigger draw than the horses.
You can even sit down and play a few hands of blackjack, although the cards are digital and the dealer is a video image of an attractive woman.
OLG estimates that a casino at Woodbine could accommodate up to 5,000 slots, less than twice the size of the current operation, plus table games with human dealers.
But just because Woodbine already has a watered-down version of a casino is no reason to expand gambling options on the site, says Peggy Calvert of No Casino Toronto. "We don't support a mega-casino anywhere in the city," she says. "We have [gambling] at a very small scale right now. As far as we're concerned, leave well enough alone."
Calvert says she's not anti-gambling, and she's certainly no stranger to the racetrack. When she was in high school she spent her summers working the admissions gate at Woodbine. She wants horse racing to be preserved, but believes a casino is not the answer.
"We support Woodbine, we support the horse racing industry. And we don't want anything to hurt it. [But] we don't want anything to hurt the quality of life of all Torontonians," she says.
Paul Bedford, former chief planner for the city, concedes that because the area around Woodbine is underdeveloped and far from dense residential neighbourhoods, building a casino there would be less damaging than downtown.
Problems a gaming facility would bring to the core of the city, like traffic congestion and the need to raze properties for parking space, are relative non-issues in spacious Etobicoke. And he also doesn't dispute that a casino could bring employment to the disadvantaged Rexdale community. (According to WEG, Woodbine's 7,500 jobs represent 10 per cent of the area's labour force.)
But Bedford has words of caution for anyone who sees a gambling complex as a quick fix, whether for underemployment or the horse racing industry's woes.
"Casinos around North America are in terrible shape. They're losing money; they're not money makers," he says. "I think you're putting your eggs in one basket, and I have a lot of concerns about that."