05/24/2013 1:48PM

Fort Erie opens 50-day meet - a work in progress

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FORT ERIE, Ontario – Fort Erie, which had been scheduled to close for good last Dec. 31, instead will begin its 116th season Sunday at 1:15 p.m. with 50 racing days, 26 fewer than last year.

The track seemed out of options when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation removed slot machines from the facility a year ago in April and left both the racetrack and the horsemen without their 10 percent share of net proceeds. But the provincial government came through with an unspecified amount of funding for the racetrack this spring.

The meeting, which opens three weeks later than in recent years, ends on Sept. 24.

“The reduction in racing days was a serious blow,” said Rick Cowan, the track’s operations manager. “But we have adapted our program so that the purses will be similar to last season and the heart of the season, from June through September.”

“Our current operation is a work in progress,” said Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, a not-for-profit team that manages the track. “One major problem is the serious reduction in breeding and in the 2-year-old horse population.”

Fort Erie’s racing secretary, Eric Johnston, has assembled a solid eight-race card for opening day, which attracted 76 horses.

“We are building towards a viable horse population,” said Johnston, “and runners are arriving every day from other venues.

“Currently, there are nearly 300 Thoroughbreds on the grounds, and the number of horses settling in increases each and every day.”

The later start to the meet – Fort Erie had been opening on Kentucky Derby Day – has at least one benefit, Johnston said.

“Our early cards will have a few abbreviated sprints,” said Johnston, “but one definite plus from a later opening date is the immediate addition of turf races to the daily card.”

The $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, second Jewel in Canada’s Triple Crown, will once again be the highlight of the racing season here.

Previously run on Sunday afternoons, this season’s Prince of Wales will be held on the evening of Tuesday, June 27.

The $125,000 Rainbow Connection Stakes will also be held on a Tuesday evening, with the date to be announced.

Fort Erie’s traditional Cup races – restricted to horses with a minimum number of starts at the meeting – include the Puss n Boots, where winning connections head for a swim in the infield lake, and the closing-day Tour de Fort at 2 miles and 70 yards.

The jockey colony will find such stalwarts as Bryan Cheyne, Juan Crawford, Melanie Pinto, and Brad Wilson returning. Two riders who contended for top honors last year are also back: last season’s leader, Terry Husbands, and Kirk Johnson.

Racing will be conducted primarily Sunday through Tuesday. The first Tuesday card will be June 4, and Mondays will be added starting June 17. First post for Tuesday is 4:15 p.m. Each card will normally have eight races.