by Alex Campbell
The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium announced after its general meeting June 5 that Fort Erie Racetrack will hold its last live race this year. Fort Erie, which is celebrating its 115th season in 2012, will hold its last day of live racing Oct. 30.
“We had to make a decision and we had to specify that 2012 would be a termination year,” FELRC chief executive officer Jim Thibert said June 6. “We do not have the funds to operate live racing in 2013. The government just plugged the plug in a way we never anticipated.”
Fort Erie is the second casualty of the canceled slots-at-racetracks program, which the Ontario provincial government in March said would end in the spring of 2013. Windsor Raceway, which hosts Standardbred racing, will cease operations Aug. 31.
Fort Erie, Windsor, and Hiawatha Horse Park all had their slots parlors closed April 30, while the remaining 14 racetracks throughout the province will have their slots shut down March 31, 2013.
Fort Erie had sent a proposal to the Ontario government to operate the slots parlor privately in an effort to keep the track open, but the government rejected the proposal when it revealed 29 new “gaming zones” across the province, none of which included the town of Fort Erie.
The news of the closure comes just as Fort Erie has had a successful start to its 81-day meet. All-sources pari-mutuel handle through the first 12 days of racing increased 12% when compared with 2011, but without the funds from the slots-at-racetracks program after this season, Fort Erie would face a shortfall of approximately $6 million.
Thibert said Fort Erie is committed to running as scheduled for the remainder of the 2012 meet as long as it has the support of horsemen and fans. Fort Erie is set to host the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, the 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales Stakes, on July 15.
The track will send an application to the Ontario Racing Commission to have its license extended until March 31, 2013. The extension would allow the FELRC to continue simulcast operations until that time, and would also allow for the chance of additional funds from the government to be added to the purse account.
The Ontario government will continue to distribute funds through the slots-at-racetracks program through March 2013. Any added funding to the purse account would be distributed to Fort Erie horsemen who raced at the track throughout the 2012 season. Thibert estimated funds available would be between $750,000 and $1 million.
The closure of the racetrack will have a significant economic impact on the town and the rest of the province. Based on a study completed by the Fort Erie Economic Development & Tourism Corp., using the Ontario Ministry of Tourism TRIEM Economic Impact Model, the closure of the track would have a negative economic impact of approximately $56 million a year for the province. Over a five-year period, that number would increase to a negative impact of $281 million.
“Everyone’s sad that our employees and horse people are just going to be let go,” Thibert said. “The town of Fort Erie is going to hurt because the economic impact of the slots and the economic impact of horse racing (will be) gone.”