TORONTO - It's one of Canada's oldest and most storied sporting events that has attracted British royalty for nearly 75 years.
But the future of the Queen's Plate thoroughbred race is being questioned after the president and chief operating officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group said Sunday's race could be the last if the Ontario government doesn't change its plan to scrap a slot machine revenue-sharing program at provincial tracks.
"As a result of the government's current position, premier race events such as the Queen's Plate as well as day-to-day horse racing are in jeopardy,'' Nick Eaves said at Thursday's post-position draw. "It shouldn't be interpreted as a threat. It should be interpreted as a realistic outcome."
Earlier this year, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced he was axing a revenue-sharing agreement with racetracks that began 14 years ago and gives them a cut of the slot profits. That amounts to $345 million annually and is split between track operators and horse owners and breeders.
McGuinty said the revenue-sharing program would be cancelled by March 13, 2013.
Shortly afterwards, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation announced it was closing slot machine facilities at Fort Erie, Windsor and Sarnia racetracks, leaving more than 550 people out of work.
"If we don't have an operating model to take us past April 1, 2013 then I can't see a way for us to operate and if we're not operating then there's no Queen's Plate," said Eaves. "It's a fact, not a threat.''
A spokeswoman for Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said Thursday the decision to scrap the Slots at Racetrack program was simple economics.
Aly Vitunski said Ontario's racing industry has received $3.7 billion in government support since 1998, a figure that's more than 10 times what Alberta, B.C., and Manitoba provide their horse-racing industries combined.
"(Since '99) it's estimated that more than $650 million has been provided to the Woodbine Racetrack in slots revenue,'' Vitunski said, adding another $650 million has gone to purses at the track.
"At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves whether the government should be in the business of health care and education or horse racing,'' she said.
But Eaves can't see how horse racing in Ontario will survive without the revenue-sharing program, which he says accounts for roughly half of annual revenues.
Eaves said there has been no dialogue between the horse-racing community and government regarding the revenue-sharing decision or any potential new arrangement between the two sides.
"I'm not looking for a reaction from government,'' Eaves said. "We're trying to plan, we're trying to have people understand the situation we find ourselves in and ultimately, what kind of a business we can operate in the future.''
The Queen's Plate was first run June 17, 1860 and has evolved into a national sporting icon. Each year, Canada's top three-year-old thoroughbreds test their mettle over 1 1/4-miles at Woodbine Ractrack in the annual ''Gallop for the Guineas.''
British royalty has participated in the race, starting in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in attendance.
Queen Elizabeth II has visited Woodbine four times, the first being in '59. She and Prince Philip returned 14 years later and joined over 40,000 spectators who watched Royal Chocolate cross the finish line first. They saw Awesome Again win in '97 and Big Red Mike emerge victorious in their last visit two years ago.
But the most popular British royal to attend the race was undoubtedly the Queen Mother, who visited Woodbine seven times before her death in 2002.
"It would be a tragedy if the 153rd Queen's Plate was the last Queen's Plate," Eaves said. "Look at the history and tradition of the event, not just in the horse-racing world but look at how it stacks up against other Canadian icons in sports and beyond.
"It would be inexcusable if this is the last Queen's Plate.''
Veteran jockey Todd Kabel, a two-time Plate champion who came out of retirement this season and will ride Classic Bryce in Sunday's edition, said it would be ''devastating to the world of horse-racing" to lose North America's longest continuously run stakes race.
"We just have to pray and cross our fingers it doesn't come down to that," he added.
Eaves questions whether the governing Liberals fully appreciate just how big the horse-racing industry is.
"It's an industry that employs 60,000 people, contributes over $2 billion a year in expenditures and ultimately supports a very large agricultural business,'' he said. "Why on earth there wouldn't be more support for keeping an industry like that going is anybody's guess."
The racetrack slots program generates about $1 billion in profits, according to Eaves.
"So not only does the abandonment of the industry result in what could be the end of the industry but also forgoes $1 billion in profit," he said. "It simply doesn't make sense.''
Politics aside, there will be a race Sunday, with Strait of Dover the early 3-1 favourite. A total of 14 horses will battle for the $600,000 winner's share.
Strait of Dover, the son of English Channel, has won his last three starts and will break from the No. 4 post in the opening leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. River Rush, the 4-1 second choice, drew the No. 1 post while 6-1 third pick Golden Ridge, one of three horses trained by Mark Casse in the field, will start from the No. 7 post.
Dixie Strike, another Casse horse, and Irish Mission, trained by four-time Plate champion Mark Frostad, are the lone fillies in the field. Dixie Strike was the 2-1 favourite earlier this month in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks but finished a disappointing fifth in a race Irish Mission won at 9-1 odds.
Both fillies are looking to follow in the footsteps of Inglorious, last year's Oaks winner who went on to beat the boys and capture the Plate.
Trainer Roger Attfield will again go after a record-setting ninth Plate victory when he sends Colleen's Sailor, a 15-1 longshot, from the No. 9 post. Attfield remains tied with Harry Giddings Jr. for most career Queen's Plate victories and last won this race in 2008 with Not Bourbon.
Seven horses have won the Queen's Plate en route to capturing the Canadian Triple Crown, the last being Wando in 2003.