10/16/2013 2:45PM

Fort Erie: Auditor General's report key to track's future


Fort Erie wound up a 40-day meeting Tuesday that may indeed be its last after the Niagara Region racetrack received an 11th-hour reprieve this spring.

A report last Friday released by the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel, which promised $400 million in provincial funding to a number of Ontario racetracks, did not provide any specific funding for Fort Erie.

Jim Thibert, head of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, indicated that Fort Erie’s future now will hinge on a report from the province’s auditor general. The report is expected in mid-November.

Otherwise, Fort Erie will close Nov. 30, with the exception of its simulcasting operation that will continue until Dec. 31, and horsemen at least will not have to suffer through the uncertainty that has characterized recent off seasons at the border oval.

“You can’t do that over and over again,” Thibert said. “I think the auditor’s going to come up and raise hell on the SARP (slots at racetracks) program in the middle of November, and then I think we’ve got a few weeks after that to sort all this out, at the latest.”

The auditor general, an independent office of the province’s legislative assembly, conducts audits of the government and its ministries and agencies with the aim of ensuring that taxpayers receive fair value for their tax dollars.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation canceled the slots-at-racetracks program, which had provided 10 percent of annual net revenues to racetrack operators and 10 percent to the horsemen for purses, this past March 31.

But the OLG actually pulled the plug on Fort Erie’s slots machines on April 30, 2012, and left the prospect of a 2013 meeting in limbo until this April.

Fort Erie received $5.9 million from the province at that time while contributing $2 million from its own war chest. Track officials have projected the need for a similar amount to continue racing next year.

The panel had proposed $3.9 million for as many as 35 days of what it calls “signature” racing, as opposed to premier racing at Woodbine.

The transition panel, in its report, said “While Fort Erie remains a beautiful and historic site, the panel can find no path to sustainability for a full race calendar there.

“The panel suggests exploring the possibility of holding a festival meet at Fort Erie – with horses shipped in on race days – in conjunction with regional tourism initiatives.”

But Thibert and Rick Cowan, the track’s chief executive officer, believe the concept is insupportable.

“We survived this year on 40 days,” Cowan said. “But anything less, that is just logistically a nightmare. Getting help, getting horses, and trying to do it economically because you still have to pay rent and still have the costs of grooming the racetrack – it’s really prohibitive.”

In the meantime, the backstretch was emptying out Tuesday, and the bulk of the racetrack’s employees, except those involved with the simulcast operation and some maintenance workers, have been laid off.