07/12/2013 8:06AM

Fort Erie: Horse shortage a continuing problem


FORT ERIE, Ontario – A shortage of horses at Fort Erie continues to plague the weekly three-day schedule for racing that was initially planned in early spring after a last-minute decision by the provincial government to support a 2013 season here.

Fort Erie opened its scheduled 50-day meeting May 26 with racing to be conducted on Sundays, adding Tuesdays beginning June 4, and Mondays beginning June 17, but he first four Monday programs were called off. On Thursday, the Ontario Racing Commission approved Fort Erie’s request to cancel three more Monday cards, July 15 through July 29.

“We have approximately 360 horses on the grounds at the moment, and a number of those are 2-year-olds preparing for their first career start later in the season,” said Rick Cowan, Fort Erie’s chief operations officer.

“Last week, we sent off a request to the Ontario Racing Commission asking for the removal of the remaining Monday race days in July, three in total, and suggesting they be added on to the end of the season.”

With the commission’s earlier approval of three added dates to make up for lost Mondays from June 17 through July 8, Fort Erie’s original closing date of Sept. 24 has moved to Oct. 8.

Fort Erie Race Track had originally planned to submit a proposal for the 2013 season that would follow those of the first three years of Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium control, which had proven the racetrack to be a viable and successful operation.

But provincial government decisions related to Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing resulted in all tracks in the province being left with a number of uncertainties as they planned their 2013 racing schedules.

“Normally,” said Cowan, “a proposal for an upcoming season is made well in advance, but it was not until March of 2013 that some clarification on earlier government actions with regard to horse racing was provided. This track waited patiently. However, no decision on its future had been reached when spring arrived. Horsemen, trainers, and owners, have a business to run and could no longer wait for a decision on whether Fort Erie would be open for racing in 2013. Many made other plans to go elsewhere.”

Thus, when it was finally announced that the Fort would have a 50-day schedule beginning in late May, it was all too little and too late for many trainers and owners.

“We devised a schedule that included twilight racing on Tuesdays in July and August, together with Sunday and Monday afternoon racing, with the realization that this last-minute opportunity for horsemen to stay and race here may have arrived too late,” said Cowan. “Requests for stalls at the Fort diminished considerably from previous years, and it was recognized that our horse population would be a borderline operation over a weekly three-day schedule.“

Woodbine runners make up approximately 25 percent of the entrants on a given card.

The local numbers have placed definite stress on the office of the racing secretary, Eric Johnston, and on the horsemen here as together they strive to work out viable race cards.

“We believe that the proposed schedule restructuring will provide timely relief through to the end of July and provide more certainty that from August to the end of the season a weekly three-day session will be in effect, as it will include races for our 2-year-old runners,” said Cowan.

Popular result

Local horsemen applauded with enthusiasm last Sunday when Fort Erie-based trainer Nick Gonzalez won his second Queen’s Plate, with Midnight Aria.

That made Gonzalez 2 for 2 in Plate attempts, as Big Red Mike won in similar gate-to-wire fashion for him in 2010.

Gonzalez was on hand here Tuesday evening, sharing his Plate score with local fans.

◗ The addition of program numbers for Fort Erie entries in Tuesday’s Daily Racing Form has pleased local punters. The elimination of scratch time allowed for the program numbers to be added.