10/26/2012 12:21PM

Fort Erie needs needs new funding to survive

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Jim Thibert
Fort Erie celebrated its 115th anniversary this year. The question is will there be a 116th season?

FORT ERIE, Ontario – Fort Erie Racetrack, which celebrated its 115th anniversary this year, will close the books on its 2012 meeting here Tuesday.

But, will Tuesday also mark the final day of Thoroughbred racing at Fort Erie?

Fort Erie, home of the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, seemed to be doomed after the Ontario government announced this March that the province’s current racetracks slots program would be discontinued as of March 31, 2013. Under the program, racetracks and horsepeople each collected 10 percent of the net proceeds generated by their facility’s slot machines with another 5 percent or more going to the hosting municipalities and the balance to the province.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation then bumped up the date for removing the 400 remaining slot machines at Fort Erie – one of three border towns, along with Windsor and Sarnia, that were homes to racetracks and were located close to major provincial casinos – to April 30, 2012.

There have been encouraging whispers lately regarding Fort Erie, with talk of potential new owners and hopes for a favorable response from the province after a panel of three former Cabinet ministers was recruited to come up with a report detailing how Ontario’s industry could remain financially viable following the termination of the slots at racetracks program.

That report currently sits in the hands of Ted McMeekin, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food, and rural affairs, who will have the final word on if and how the recommendations will be implemented.

An announcement is expected any day and the Ontario racing industry, from Woodbine to the rural Standardbred ovals, waits with bated breath.

“Everything hinges on this transition report,” said Nick Gonzalez, who is based at Fort Erie but also has a division at Woodbine with his wife and assistant, Martha Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s first exposure to racing came at Fort Erie in the early 1970s and he fully appreciates just what the racetrack means in the bigger picture of Ontario’s Thoroughbred racing industry.

“The biggest thing Fort Erie’s given owners and trainers is an out,” said Gonzalez, who recently was elected to a second term as vice president of trainers for Ontario’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It’s given them an opportunity to have stalls, to run cheaper horses.

“And it’s also given people a life, and a livelihood. There are people at Fort Erie that were never going to make it on the big stage at Woodbine. The biggest reason is they didn’t have the horseflesh to be competitive there.

“But I think a very meaningful thing, which Fort Erie has to offer, is not just keeping the smaller trainers and the cheaper horses going. It has enabled the owners of many horses that can’t be competitive at Woodbine to have that avenue at Fort Erie.”

Fort Erie, with its dirt surface, has become an even more important fallback position for Woodbine horses and horsemen since a Polytrack surface opened there on Aug. 30, 2006.

“I’ve got a large number of horses to train over time just because they weren’t competitive over the Polytrack,” said Gonzalez. “We’ve turned some horses’ fortunes around, by bringing them to Fort Erie.”

Fort Erie also has played an important role for Ontario’s jockeys, and Robert King has seen the racetrack from the perspectives of trainer, rider, and now as the national/secretary manager of the Jockeys Benefit Association of Canada.

“Fort Erie’s always been a great place to race,” said the 48-year-old King, who rode from 1982 through 2007. “When I was riding I kind of knew I would phase out my career eventually, and it was a fun place to do it.”

King hung up his tack for the first time in 1996 and took up training, first in Vancouver and then at Woodbine. Making a comeback at Fort Erie, King topped the standings with 111 wins in 2006 and 106 wins in 2007.

The following year, King retired from the saddle for good and was elected to the Jockeys Benefit Association post where his focus has been on the the mental, physical, and financial welfare of Canada’s riders.

That role has increased King’s appreciation of Fort Erie’s role in the Ontario racing picture.

“It’s a great learning place for horsemen and jocks,” said King. “Jocks can make mistakes down there, and they’re not as amplified as they are at Woodbine.

“Fort Erie allows for my younger jocks to break ground and be comfortable with plying their trade, and then go up to Woodbine. It’s kind of like a minor league, in baseball, or junior hockey. It serves its purposes for both horses and horsemen.