TORONTO — Messier will attempt to become just the third Canadian-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, but racing fans won't be able to wager on him in Ontario's fixed-odds sports betting industry.
Single-game sports betting became legal in Canada last summer, with the market opening fully in Ontario on April 4. However, before Bill C-218 was passed, it was amended to not permit fixed-odds wagering on horse racing to protect the industry in Canada amid concerns sports books would "cannibalize" it.
Betting in horse racing is regulated federally, not provincially. The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, a branch within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, supervises pari-mutuel betting in Canada on horse racing.
The Criminal Code of Canada only permits pari-mutuel betting in this country on horse racing. Any other type of betting on the sport, including fixed-odds systems, is illegal.
Messier, born and bred at Sam-Son Farm in Milton, Ont., is the 8-1 early third choice for the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of the American Triple Crown. The heralded colt has won three of his six career starts and never finished worse than second.
Only two Canadian-bred horses have won the Derby, the last being Sunny's Halo in 1983. The other was the legendary Northern Dancer in 1964.
The CPMA can issue betting permits and licenses to Canadian racetracks but not online sportsbooks now operating legally in Ontario. Woodbine Entertainment has the only pari-mutuel betting license in Ontario -- issued by the CPMA -- that allows it to run wagering for all of the province’s horse-racing tracks via two apps -- HPIbet, and Dark Horse Bet.
Woodbine would like its network to become integrated into Ontario's online sportsbooks and is currently in conversations with the CPMA.
"I would say it continues on a positive trend," said Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment. "I know they (CPMA) have been working with the Attorney General checking the boxes on horse-racing content being offered by sports-betting operators consistent with the Criminal Code, which is to say it needs to stay pari-mutuel.
"We just want to have our interface seamless for the customer, which it needs to be. We're working through that and I'm confident we're headed in the right direction federally."
Lawson said the process is a complicated one that requires time to fully address.
"Yes, it (horse-racing) was pulled out but the idea was these big sports-betting operators would have to come to the horse-racing industry or the pari-mutuel license holders and get it from them," he said. "The largest market in Canada, by far, is Ontario and the only pari-mutuel license holder in Ontario is Woodbine Entertainment so they have to come to us.
"We're well down the road in our discussions with these major sports-betting operators, they want to carry it. But it's unique because we have to get a federal regulator to regulate it as they're the only ones that can regulate pari-mutuel, which is what the Criminal Code says.
"Meanwhile there's this interface with the province, which is to manage and control gaming and so we first have to get the CPMA to approve our prototype, which we are very much in the process of doing. This should all happen, it's just taking some time."
Lawson has continually stated the horse-racing industry employs approximately 25,000 people and is important to Ontario's economy. And he said the inclusion of horse-racing into sportsbooks would be a huge plus for the sport.
"This sport means a lot to the Ontario economy and once the CPMA is satisfied and prepared to regulate it and it's clear that it doesn't violate the Criminal Code then we'll be able to put horse-racing content in the whole sports-betting arena," Lawson said. "It's too late for the Kentucky Derby weekend but we're sure hoping and expecting that this will all be available for Queen's Plate weekend.
"What a boon it would be horse-racing industry it we had all of these major platform marketing and advertising that they're carrying the Queen's Plate and being able to bet on it through all of these major sport-betting operators. It would reach a whole new audience and demographic and player."
Especially if Messier were to run in the '22 Queen's Plate. Earlier this week, Tom Ryan, the managing partner of SF Bloodstock/SF Racing LLC — which has an ownership stake in the three-year-old colt — left the door open to the horse participating in the opening jewel of Canada's Triple Crown.
"If we had a star like Messier coming up here, you can be assured the sports-betting operators would promote the heck out of it in Canada," Lawson said. "There'd be a lot of eyes and betting on the Queen's Plate, which would be great for our industry."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press