Deal Protects Fort Erie Meet for 2009

Fort Erie in Ontario, Canada, has been granted a reprieve and will race this year.

Fort Erie Race Track & Slots in Ontario, Canada, will offer live Thoroughbred racing this year, and the local horsemen’s group is asking for support from owners and trainers.

The closure of Fort Erie, located just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y., has been threatened for some time. Under a deal announced March 12, a consortium comprised of the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, local and provincial governments, and others is trying to raise about $32 million (Canadian) to buy the track from Nordic Gaming Corp.

Fort Erie is scheduled to open May 2 for a 78-day meet. With less than two months before the track opens, officials are concerned about the horse population because some horsemen had made plans to race elsewhere.

“We all have endured a frustrating, emotional, and challenging time again in Fort Erie,” Ontario HBPA president Sue Leslie said in a March 12 note to the membership. “There is much more work to be done to find a permanent solution for our racetrack. Nothing will guarantee the failure of Fort Erie quicker then poor race cards with small fields. We must provide the gambling public with the best possible product we can.

“As owners and trainers, we love small fields, but unfortunately, the gamblers do not. Larger fields generate more betting, more betting feeds the purse account and racetrack operations. If we are to complete a purchase we need to show the province, the town, and any possible investors that we have the ability to put on a show that is worthy of investment.”

The consortium has until June 10 to complete the purchase. It already provided a $2.25 million down payment.

“We’re getting some breathing room,” Fort Erie director of operations Herb McGirr told the Buffalo News. “We’re definitely not over the hump. We can just be thankful that the patient is getting out of the emergency room. Now, it still needs a lot of treatment.”

The barn area at the scenic track, which has dirt and turf courses, opens March 22, with training set to commence the following day, the Ontario HBPA said.

Fort Erie, like some other tracks with alternative gaming, has been impacted by nearby competition from full-scale casinos. Such facilities are located in the Niagara Falls area on both sides of the international border.

According to figures from The Jockey Club Information Systems, Fort Erie raced 107 days with average daily purses of $74,978 in 2000. The advent of on-track slot machines pushed average daily purses to $146,921 for 114 racing dates in 2003.

That figure decline slightly in 2005 ($143,495 for 81 days) the following year, but then the slide began. In 2005, the daily payout was $103,045 for 104 days; in 2008, Fort Erie raced 80 days with average daily purses of $107,229.

Field size last year averaged 7.76 horses per race, according to TJCIS, and horsemen fear that figure could be lower given the uncertainty over whether the track would race in 2009.

Slots at Fort Erie and other tracks in Ontario are operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. Tracks and horsemen each get 10% of gross revenue; the province is responsible for slots operations.