A reply to Martin Regg Cohn’s column: “Gambling on Horses hasn’t paid off”

It’s hard to know if Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn is trying to use horse racing as a way to ‘spank’ the Provincial Liberal party. Maybe he is showcasing what he believes to be a “dying Liberal brand” through the Ontario government’s attempts to revive horse racing in Ontario.

Regardless, Cohn’s column in the Toronto Star[1] of June 16, 2015 fails at both.

I won’t take the time here to retell the story of the rise and fall of the Slots at the Racetrack Program (SARP) or the Wynne’s government’s work to breathe life back into the industry. We all know the story and we have heard it countless times before.

So let me tell a bit of a different story.

When the McGuinty government pulled the plug on SARP, it became clear that it was a government that felt itself to be under siege respecting its failures to practice timely oversight over e-health (Twinkies), ORANGE (lavish trips to buy helicopters), wind farms (rural opposition) and nuclear plants (a vote loser).

In each of those cases, the government understood that it had not acted fast enough and decided it wasn’t going to make the same ‘mistake’ again.

Instead, it pulled the plug on SARP and placed a world class horse racing industry into complete disarray on the mistaken view that acting in haste would somehow be more decisive and result in less negative political fallout than on other files.

What Cohn gets right is that SARP was a good and generous program that helped horse racing thrive in Ontario and to maintain its world class product and reputation. What he gets wrong is that ending SARP was simply not an “uncharacteristically gutsy decision to rein in a horse racing sector run amok”.

Imagine for a moment how sad it is that all across Canada and elsewhere, libraries are closing[2]. Librarians are laid off, doors are bolted shut, and the books are placed in boxes and sent to storage. Reading and learning are both stymied. Expertise is lost. Memory is lessened and a generation of children is forced to turn away from books, to whatever small degree, to obtain the education they require.

Library closures are a tragedy of the commons, a testament to poor planning, and a failure to understand both the future and the past.

But as sad as library closures may be, the books are not alive, none of them are pregnant, none of them need exercise nor sustenance and no book will ever be euthanized or be sold for food.

The “uncharacteristically gutsy decision” lauded by Cohn in its surprise, its depth and its execution resulted in utterly needless and widespread disruption of an industry, lost jobs, closed doors, bankrupted owners and farms,  and the death or sale of  an untold numbers of equine athletes. And as in the case of the libraries, it looked as if it was destined to become another tragedy.

Cohn appears not to understand the difference between careful cost containment and ‘plug pulling’. In calling it gutsy, you get the sense that he revels in the hubris and testosterone of the grand moment, however ill-advised or ill-conceived. Careful planning just doesn’t have the cut and thrust of a sword piercing armour or the boom of a cannonball shot across the bow.

But Cohn goes on to mistake the mitigation of a preposterously unplanned slash and grab at horse racing as yet another instance of recklessness. In successive paragraphs, he characterizes Premier Wynne as “throwing more money back at the tracks”, “throwing McGuinty under the bus” and leading a “crusade to give horse racing a higher profile”.

In Cohn’s world, we are invited to understand   McGuinty’s recklessness and rash impetuosity as “gutsy” and Wynne’s thoughtful attempts to bring a steadier hand and to undo a headlong and impulsive wrongdoing as a ‘crusade’.

May we understand that this columnist is neither a fan of horse racing nor Premier Wynne?

But he does get it right that horse racing is an ailing industry. But that’s the same as hitting someone over the head and blaming them for falling.

Arguments pro and con aside, would Mr. Cohn perhaps have a slightly different view of history if I could play the equivalent of Dickens’ ghost of Christmas past and have him follow me through the weeks of agonizing decisions to find good homes for racehorses that had become uneconomical to race, literally overnight?

How would he view the long days of planning and interviewing to make sure that these horses did not become someone’s dinner an ocean away?

What would he think of the long months of writing letters of recommendation for the friends who, in an instant, had no choice but to leave the industry?

Perhaps I would refrain from telling him – in my role as ghost – that his own print industry is ailing and ask him if he thought that ‘pulling the plug’ should be chosen as an alternative to carefully planned downsizing of that industry. Would he see mitigation of a reckless move as ‘throwing money at an ailing industry’?

Are there no smartphones? Are there no tablets? Are there no laptops?

In the final analysis, Cohn’s column is about a mistake that hobbled an industry and a new government that is still, three and half years later, trying to correct the excesses of its predecessor. It is not the story of a gutsy move followed by any form of crusade.  He just has it wrong.

js/June 23, 2015

[1] http://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2015/06/15/olg-bets-on-horse-racing-to-help-liberals-rebrand-cohn.html

[2] http://capalibrarians.org/2014/01/time-line-the-closure-of-canadian-government-libraries-archives-and-research-collections/