by Alex Campbell
The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, which operates thoroughbred racing at Fort Erie Race Track, said it has submitted a proposal to the Ontario provincial government's Horse Racing Transition Panel to continue live racing at the track for at least the next three years.
The consortium has asked the government for $7.9 million per year to run 400 races, or $8.7 million to run 500 races for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horse. The consortium has also stipulated that it be an "evergreen"-style agreement by which the province would be required to give three years notice of cancellation.
While the province is in the midst of developing a five-year plan for the industry after ending the lucrative slots-at-racetracks program this past March, Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the FELRC, believes the consortium's proposal of a three-year "evergreen" agreement is more practical for the needs of the horse racing industry.
"It won't work on a five-year contract," he said. "You're going to get two years down the road and after your racing season is over, you're down to three years left and everyone's wondering what's going to happen. A three-year evergreen agreement puts everybody on a good, firm footing. It's good for the racing industry as a whole, and it will instill confidence."
As part of the agreement proposed by the FELRC, funding from the province would help cover operating expenses and a purse account for the track. According to Thibert, the province issued $5.5 million in transitional funding to Fort Erie for 2013 season, but the track also had additional purse account and operational surpluses, as well as other sources of funding, that totaled $2.5 million. That brought the total 2013 operating budget to $8 million.
Thibert is hopeful the province will provide an answer on the proposal to the consortium by the end of Fort Erie's 2013 Thoroughbred meet to give the industry confidence going forward. Fort Erie's closing day is scheduled for Oct. 15.
"Stability is important," Thibert said. "The government knows that they are the cause of the entire shortfall in the horse racing industry. The way to fix it is to confirm that we're racing for at least three years."
Despite facing a number of challenges with the horse population this season, which caused the track to adjust its schedule to run just two days a week, on-track attendance and wagering is up on a per-day basis when compared with 2012.
Thibert said Fort Erie has seen increases of 12% for on-track pari-mutuel handle on a per-race basis, 13% for food and beverage revenue per day, and 55% for program sales per race day. Simulcast wagering is down 3% from last year, but overall net earnings for the track are up 2% from 2012.
"We're ahead of our budget targets, and that's remarkable based on the fact that we've got so few horses," Thibert said. "We've been placing our races properly on the simulcast circuit, we've been putting in good fields, and the shorter races don't seem to matter to the bettors."
If the government were to agree to the FELRC's proposal, guaranteeing live racing for the next three years at the historic border racetrack, Thibert expects horsemen will respond positively.
"I had my team go out into the backstretch and talk to the owners and the trainers and ask them how many horses they would have here in the next year to 18 months if we were to get on a three-year evergreen contract," Thibert said. "They said a minimum of 357 more horses. We have 340 horses back there now, and you're looking at another 350. We're managing miracles on the horses we have now."
Through Sept. 22, Fort Erie had raced 32 days and offered 312 races. According to The Jockey Club Information Systems, $3.91 million in purses had been paid so far–the average was $115,257 per day–and field size averaged 7.23 horses per race for Thoroughbred racing.
The track also opted to move its signature race, the Prince of Wales Stakes, to a Tuesday evening this season, a move that paid off with an estimated on-track crowd of more than 10,000 and a 14% increase in total handle over last year's Prince of Wales card.
"We're trying to meet the goals of the panel, which is tighter fields, better races, better timing, better attendance, more public involvement, and more non-wagering revenue increases," Thibert said. "We've been doing all of those things."
Thibert believes the funds required from the government to keep Fort Erie running will be well worth the investment.
"I think the panel should be very proud of us and people should be supporting us to move on with a three-year evergreen contract and keep going," Thibert said. "The dollar value itself is very minimal compared to what some of the other tracks are getting, and of course, it has a huge economic impact in rural Ontario and in small-town Ontario, like Fort Erie."