While the horse racing industry continues to languish in this country, surviving by the grace of God and the generosity of a few corporate sponsors and individuals, the long-touted Gambling Control Bill is still nowhere in sight. Despite previous frenzied efforts by different Governments of Trinidad and Tobago, the Act to provide for the establishment of the Gambling Control Commission (the Gambling Control Bill) continues in abeyance, with no recent word about any timing for its implementation.
As currently constituted, the Gaming industry remains unsustainable. There continue to be too many aspects of this industry that can only, and this is being extremely generous, described as operating within the informal economy. The lack of a proper regulatory and tax environment has created an unlevelled playing field, which places some sectors of this industry at a significant disadvantage. The horse racing sector is the biggest sufferer in this regard. While it would be a big stretch of the imagination to blame these “informal” aspects for the problems in which the racing industry currently resides, they have played a role in threatening its survival. Not only have these informal activities undermined the racing industry, but they have also undermined the wider real economy through the adverse impact on the foreign exchange (the profit on most bets placed through these channels end up overseas through the black market access to foreign exchange).
To address the twin challenge of undermining the local racing industry and the wider real economy, the authorities need to focus on curbing the proliferation of gaming machines across the country; the illegal practice of “walk-in” members’ club and the proliferation of Chinese gaming venues in most of the other indistinct Chinese owned groceries and shops.
In virtually every nook and cranny, every corner bar and mum and pop shop, you can find an electronic variant of a one-armed bandit. Where these are not found, other forms of gaming are readily available and the use of the legal Play Whe system for the purpose of taking bets on illegal versions (with a higher payout) has continued to flourish. It is hard to believe that those in authority are not aware of these activities. Given the Trinidadian penchant for pursuing quick money, unless these activities are forcibly discontinued, they will only continue to expand.
This is clearly not in the best interest of the country. It is pointless to be setting up a Rehabilitation Fund to aid victims of gambling addiction when nothing is being done to monitor the opportunities. It could be argued that there is no amount of policing that can be put in place to monitor what happens at these various outlets. As the reintroduction of the death penalty, it is arguable that a few big examples are certain to act as a deterrent to would-be transgressors. There needs to be stricter enforcement of the criteria and controls over who/where can establish a gaming outlet. As argued previously, these controls should be tied to population densities and the size of the proposed operation.
Anytime efforts are made to place controls on the private members club, there is a strong lobby that surfaces to argue for the interest of, of all groups, the employees of these members clubs. A few years ago, one government official suggested that the horse racing industry employed fewer individuals than private members club and therefore it was important that the country caters for the well being of all. That reference was questionable then, and while it might be truer now, that would be large because of the continued decline of the local horse racing industry over the ensuing period. The diversity of those engaged in the horse racing industry far outweighs the diversity of those involved in the gaming sector. Besides the persons directly employed by the Arima Race Club and the betting shops, we have trainers, grooms and jockeys. In addition, you have veterinarians, farriers, feed suppliers, stud farm employees, transport providers, etc, etc. If you consider another important statistic, the capital investment, substantial sums use to be invested every year by owners in acquiring racehorses to fulfil their own ambitions but which also directly keep the sport ticking over. Throw in the taxes paid by all of the above and factoring in the low wage levels in, and lower taxes paid by, the private member clubs there really is no comparison between the two.
Horse racing is a big sector worldwide and could certainly be much bigger in Trinidad and Tobago with a proper regulatory and taxation framework around it and better internal management by those charged with the responsibility. The fact that it remains the one sport that is not under the auspices of the Ministry of Sport but rather the Ministry of Trade speaks volumes for how the sport is viewed and therein lies a lot of the problem because while Minister of Sports and Community Development – Shamfa Cudjoe - is a people person and proactive, the same cannot be said of the Minister of Trade and Industry.
With a goal of self-sufficiency, the barriers to the growth of the sport (internal and external) need to be removed. Internally, we have all of the issues surrounding the management of the sport, which we continue to speak about in various articles. Externally, we have issues which regulations such as this Gambling Control Bill should be seeking to address.
It remains unclear whether this legislation was a necessary precursor to the ARC being able to establish its own casino, casino game, equal chance game or the equivalent but that is most necessary. It also remains unclear what is needed to change for horse racing to be able to exercise the option of putting on racing on a Sunday but that is also something that needs to be urgently reviewed.
As I have said before, there is horse racing in Italy and Latin America (and virtually every other country in the world) on Sundays, even our fellow Caribbean country, Jamaica, yet still, we continue to be more religious/spiritual than everyone else. We continue to be held back by Victorian-era laws that have long been repealed everywhere else. This is a change that would cost the country absolutely nothing but could generate some additional tax income for the government – in a time when the country needs it most.
If the powers that be will not implement change for the sake of the sport, maybe they will do it for their own survival, which is undeniably tied to the fortunes of the local economy. And the fortunes of the local economy could be improved if the illegal gaming and private members club are stymied - and Sunday racing allowed - through the positive impact on tax revenues from other sources.
Time is running out, for many, not only those in horseracing, and when that loss of employment, finally hits home, it may be too late for this beautiful country.