05/04/2012 1:55PM

Fort Erie: Casino closing, expiring lease are cause for concern


FORT ERIE, Ontario – Fort Erie Race Track begins its season Sunday under a cloud of apprehension. This will be the final year of a three-year lease held by the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, and once again the track’s future is uncertain.

In addition to the expiring lease, the provincial government closed the ontrack slots casino April 30 and support from it and other government sources is in jeopardy.

Jim Thibert, chief operations officer for Fort Erie Race Track and the general manager for the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourist Corporation, is the spokesperson for the leasing consortium. He has proposed that the not-for-profit consortium be given the opportunity to operate the casino as a private enterprise.

“We’ve had discussions on our proposal for casino privatization with the Lottery and Gaming Corporation,” said Thibert, “and the process is ongoing. Kim Craitor, our member of parliament, fully supports the proposal and has agreed to talk to the Premier on this matter.”

Funding for this season is fully in place. A total of 81 racing days are on tap for 2012, including five days of Quarter Horse racing and three days of mixed cards where Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds compete together.

Racing days are Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with a post time of 1:15  p.m. Eastern. Tuesday racing will switch to a twilight post time of 4:15 p.m. for the months of June, July and August. The final day of the season will be Tuesday, Oct. 30.

The highlight of the meeting, as usual, will be the $500,000 Prince Wales Stakes. The 1 3/16-mile stakes is the second leg of the triple crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds and will be held July 15.

The aura of uncertainty for 2013 and beyond has not deterred horsemen, as close to 600 horses are on site and more are expected. In addition, a number of runners presently at Woodbine are expected to race at Fort Erie.

Rick Cowan, the track’s chief executive officer, is pleased with the interest shown by horsemen as the opening-day 10-race program attracted 94 entries, including five also-eligibles.

“We are going to make the 115th year here an exciting one for our fans as many promotions are scheduled to highlight this anniversary,” said Cowan.

“We are of course sensitive to the recent government action and that only makes us more determined than ever to build on the many successes of last season.”

Commenting on the frustration many fans, owners, and trainers have expressed since learning that future funding for the track is in jeopardy, Cowan added, “We must look forward and just get on with doing the very best possible. Twilight racing has been well received by the public as has the new Tiki Bar. This season, come June, there will be a live band every Tuesday evening and if last season was any indication, then the fans will be out in droves to enjoy both the twilight racing and the music.”

Nick Gonzalez, vice president of the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, also commented on the upcoming season.

“We have to get on with the racing season while understanding that the future of racing throughout Ontario, including all breeds, has been severely stressed by recent government pronouncements,” he said.

Gonzalez added that the HBPA fully backs the Fort Erie track and is an active partner in the consortium.

From a personal standpoint, Gonzalez is committed to Fort Erie racing.

“We have downsized somewhat,” he said, “but you can expect that some of our current stock at Woodbine will be heading this way as the year progresses. Stable expansion at the Fort is more than probable.”