04/30/2009 12:00AM

'Business as usual' as meet opens


FORT ERIE, Ontario - The 112th racing season at historic Fort Erie begins Saturday, following a winter of apprehension over whether a 2009 race meet would occur.

Finally, in mid-March, a tentative agreement was reached where track owner Nordic Gaming would sell Fort Erie to a not-for-profit consortium headed by the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corp.

A final decision on the purchase offer is scheduled for June 10. Whether the sale moves forward or not, it will not affect the current racing season.

Under the agreement, Nordic Gaming will conduct a 78-day meet ending Oct. 27. An opening two-day weekend will be followed by a Sunday through Tuesday schedule, with the exception of an added Saturday of racing on July 4.

The highlight of the meet is the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel in Canada's Triple Crown, which will be run July 12. The Prince of Wales will be accompanied by two $50,000 events, the Ernie Samuel and the Daryl Wells Sr. Memorial stakes. Both are for Canadian-breds and will be run over the Fort Erie turf course.

Also included in the schedule are the $125,000 Rainbow Connection on Aug. 16 and nine Cup races scheduled from mid-July until closing day. The $28,500 Cup events have restrictions related to horses who must have started at the 2009 Fort Erie race meet.

Tom Gostlin, the Fort's racing secretary, had no problem filling the opening-day eight-race card, with 72 runners entered.

To begin the season, eight races a day will be on the schedule, with the option open for an increase to nine races on Mondays and Tuesdays as the season progresses.

The delay in announcing a 2009 season created concern in some corners that the horse population might not be sufficient to begin the meet.

However, those concerns have abated as there are nearly 600 horses on the grounds. That figure is expected to increase dramatically now that the season is set to begin. Overall, there have been applications for 950 stalls by 125 trainers.

It also is worth noting that almost 20 percent of the entrants here last year were shippers from Woodbine and a similar percentage is expected in 2009.

"Business as usual," was the phrase coined by general manager Herb McGirr as he discussed the upcoming meet.

"This racing season will be a mirror of last year's as our purse structure is equivalent to that of 2008," McGirr said. "We are certainly happy to be here and definitely are looking forward to a banner year."