10/03/2008 12:00AM

Fort Erie mourns death of trainer


FORT ERIE, Ontario - The Fort Erie racing fraternity suffered a major loss last Saturday when trainer John Wilson died from an apparent heart attack after being kicked by a horse he was saddling at Presque Isle Downs.

Wilson, 88, had been very active during the 2008 racing season with 47 starts at Fort Erie and another 12 starts at Woodbine.

On Monday, jockeys, fellow trainers, and racing fans joined track management in a moment of silence for Wilson. Flags were flown at half-mast.

Trainer Norm Bowles recalled how his friend Wilson first came into racing.

"It was back in the 60s and Jack was in the management game with the poultry industry and working for boxer George Chuvalo's manager, Irv Ungerman," said Bowles. "That is when he first got interested in Thoroughbreds. Then, not long after buying a couple of runners, he set up a swimming arena for horses near Woodbine racetrack and named it Swim to Win.

"He owned and operated a similar Swim to Win arena across the street from this track a few years back. He was always on the go, and just recently told me of a building project he had in mind."

Wilson sent nearly 3,000 runners to the gate in his more than 30 years as a Thoroughbred trainer. His energy, enthusiasm, and friendly smile will be missed.

Labanowich remembered

Monday's racing card will honor another longtime friend of the Thoroughbred, Ted Labanowich, who died last October at the age of 74 following a struggle with stomach cancer.

The fifth race Monday afternoon is named in his honor.

His passion for handicapping brought Labanowich the nickname "The King," and he seldom missed a chance to offer his assessment of any race. He developed his own speed figures for both Woodbine and Fort Erie and he produced a daily handicapping handout that identified his top picks.

As the racing correspondent for the Hamilton Spectator and as Daily Racing Form's reporter at Fort Erie, Labanowich wrote many an interesting story on the game he so loved.

Pimentel chases Beckon

The famous quote attributed to Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over," came to mind last week as jockey Rui Pimentel brought home nine winners over three days of racing.

Pimentel has 64 wins, nine fewer than leading rider Chad Beckon, but with 13 racing days left on the schedule there is time for for Pimentel to close the gap.

Is the end near?

Last year as the meet's end neared, apprehension grew over the future of this 111-year-old track and a town hall meeting was called to energize all concerned over the possible loss of the industry here. "Save the track" buttons were common, as were similar signs along the roads and highways.

Now, with the 2008 season in its final month, similar apprehensions have arisen.

Nothing has been announced by track ownership and management, the town of Fort Erie, or the provincial government regarding plans for 2009.

The impact of the track's closure and its effect on the town of Fort Erie has been much discussed over the years as the future of the track has been in doubt.

The former owner of the track, the Ontario Jockey Club, completed a study on a track closure in the 1990s and estimated that it would result in the loss of 4,500 jobs to the local area and a loss of payroll to the community of $38 million.

At that time, the Ontario government provided much-needed funding for Fort Erie through a tax-rebate arrangement, breathing new life into the track economically.

Although meetings between government officials and current track ownership have occurred recently, nothing has been announced and there are continuing concerns raised by horsemen, track employees, and Fort Erie residents over the lack of any progress.

In the mix of the discussions is the proposal for a major development project on track property, a project that would add many new employment opportunities for Fort Erie residents.

w The final race Tuesday was canceled because riders were concerned about the track's surface.