Ajax Casino owner, horse racing legend Norm Picov dead at 86

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Published February 20, 2023 at 8:25 am

Anthony Urciuoli/hamilton.insauga.com photo

The tributes are coming in for Ajax horseman, philanthropist and casino owner Norm Picov, who died Saturday morning at the age of 86.

A farmer at heart with horses – especially quarter horses – in his blood, Picov followed in his father Alex’s footsteps to become one of the town’s biggest landowners and developers with the quarter-horse industry his passion. Alex Picov, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1931, is considered the father of quarter horse racing in Ontario and the biggest race on the calendar at the family-owned Ajax Downs race track is the $93,870 Alex Picov Futurity, contested every October on the last racing card of the year.

Norm Picov in the Ajax Downs Tack Shop with his staff on his 80th birthday in 2016

“Ontario horse racing lost a great man today,” Sovereign Award horse racing writer Jennifer Morrison tweeted. “Mr. Picov loved breeding and racing his horses and he was honoured by the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame for his contributions to racing. Condolences.”

The track opened in 1969 and in 2001, with casinos springing up at major thoroughbred and standardbred tracks around the province, Picov successfully lobbied for slot machines at his little quarter horse racetrack, then known as Picov Downs. The casino opened its doors with 200 machines in 2006, since expanding to 500.

The slots at Ajax Casino

A booming business followed. Licensed horse people jumped from 145 in 2005 to more than a thousand by 2012, the horse population increased from 100 or so to more than 600 and overall wagering on quarter horse racing – the straw than stirs the drink – exploded, going from $300,000 to $3 million in just three years.

And then Picov and the Town nearly lost that golden slot machine egg when the Liberal government at the time awarded a new casino seven kilometres away to the City of Pickering in 2018, with regulations prohibiting two casinos in close proximity. After failed attempts at the Ontario Municipal Board and Ontario’s Divisional Court, an appeal was made in October of that year to newly elected Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The new Conservative Premier was able to tweak the rules to allow the casino to stay open.

Norm and his wife Lynda with Ajax-Pickering Hospital Foundation board member Lucy Stocco

The casino certainly added to Picov’s bankroll, with 10 per cent of the revenue – now more than $10 million per year and more than $200 million since the casino opened less than 17 years ago – funnelled to the family. But Norm and his wife Lynda, who died in 2020, and now his children through the Robin and Barry Picov Family Foundation, have always given back to the community.

In 2010 the family donated $100,000 to Ajax-Pickering Hospital’s Image is Everything campaign – the largest cheque the hospital’s foundation had ever received – for the purchase of its first MRI machine. (The Quarter Racing Owners of Ontario also presented the campaign with $20,000 raised from Family Day at the Races events at the Ajax track.)

The Ajax Pickering Hospital Foundation was quick to offer its condolences to the Picov family, noting that Picov support for the hospital went beyond the contribution to the MRI campaign.

“Since 2010, Norm’s beloved quarter horse race track has hosted ‘Family Fun Day’ every August in support of the Ajax Pickering Hospital,” the foundation declared on Facebook. “Thank you, Norm, for your kindness, philanthropy and commitment to horse racing and our community.”

10 year-old Norman with his father Alex in 1946

In the last decade the family and the charitable foundation established by son Barry and his wife Robin have generously donated to a number of causes, with Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto and dementia care being chief among them.

In honour of Lynda’s 78th birthday, the Foundation and the Picov Family donated $250,000 to launch several high-impact projects at Baycrest, including a caregiver support group for dementia.

The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame also presented the normally media-shy Picov with a special award of honour at its 2016 Induction Gala for his “dedicated service and unique contributions” to Canada’s horse racing industry.

The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame ceremony in 2016.

“Norman will be dearly missed. Thoughts are with his family,” said Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment.

Ajax Mayor Shaunn Collier said the Picov family and quarter horse racing have brought together neighbouring communities and “advanced the development” of the town.

“Norm’s kindness, philanthropy and commitment to growing horse racing in Canada, and here in Ajax, will not be forgotten.”

The Quarter Racing Owners of Ontario held their annual awards banquet Saturday night and included a tribute by Ajax Downs General Manager Emilio Trotta to Picov. Ajax Regional Councillor Marilyn Crawford, who was in attendance at the gala, called Picov the “heart & soul of quarter horse racing.”

 

Snow Moose winning the 2022 Alex Picov Futurity in 2022

Norm Picov leaves two sons and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by wife Lynda.

The funeral will be held at the gravesite today at Beth Tzedec Memorial Park cemetery near Bathurst St. and Finch Ave. in Toronto.

 

 

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