05/27/2017 11:36AM

Fort Erie opens meet looking to build on momentum from 2016

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Fort Erie Race Track will kick off its 120th season of live racing Tuesday with an eight-race card that attracted 58 entries.

Fort Erie is coming into the 2017 season off another strong meet in 2016. The track finished its 2016 meet with a 20 percent increase in all-sources handle and estimated that attendance increased 10 percent based on wagering, food, beverage, and program sales figures.

“The last couple of years, we’ve shown some good increases and some very positive trends,” said Tom Valiquette, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium.

The meet once again will be highlighted by the 82nd running of the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, at 1 3/16 miles on dirt July 25. Last year’s Prince of Wales card set a track record for all-sources handle at $2.2 million and drew the track’s largest crowd in years.

Valiquette said moving the track’s marquee race day to a Tuesday evening several years ago has been a successful change.

“That was definitely a very strong move,” he said. “Last year, we set records. They’re all very positive trends.”

The meet will last 40 days once again. Fort Erie will run on Tuesdays throughout the meet, with Sundays added June 11. This year, Fort Erie will move its Sunday cards to Saturdays beginning in August. Those Saturday cards in August also will be twilight racing cards featuring concerts following the races. Saturday racing continues through the end of the meet Oct. 17.

Valiquette said the track hopes the move from Sundays to Saturdays will bring increased visibility.

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“It gets us out of the crowded Sunday afternoon and hopefully into dinner time Saturday night, where there might be a bit of a void,” he said. “In September and October, we get away from NFL football and a crowded market, but it should be relatively the same. We’ve got to keep trying something new. So far, everything we’ve tried has been working.”

Fort Erie averaged 6.96 starters per race last season, down 5 percent from 7.30 in 2015. The track could face a horse-supply issue after Woodbine recently introduced a policy restricting the number of times a horse stabled at Woodbine can ship out to run in a race with a purse of $20,000 or less. With the exception of the Prince of Wales Stakes and several starter allowances, Valiquette said the highest base purse offered by Fort Erie will be $18,600.

“There’s no doubt that Woodbine introducing a restrictive shipping policy would be detrimental to Fort Erie,” he said. “We have relied on the back and forth between Fort Erie and Woodbine for 35 to 40 years, at least as long as I can remember. It’s been very strong for both tracks. We help them in the spring and fall, and they help us during the summer months.”

Valiquette estimated that 35 percent of the horses who ran at Fort Erie last year were ship-ins, either from the farm or from Woodbine, with most coming from Woodbine. Valiquette said Fort Erie could see more horses stabled on the grounds later in the meet as a result of the new policy.

“We’re hearing people want to send more horses down here, but you never know until they show up,” he said. “The policy says you can ship out all you want for over $20,000, but when our top purse is $18,600, where do you think that $20,000 came from?”

Despite the horse-supply issue, Valiquette said the track has 10 percent to 15 percent more horses on the grounds now than at this time last year.

“We’ve got the place looking pretty good,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a great year, and we still plan on having a great year. We’ve attracted a couple of stables from the States up here, and we are going to have more horses back there this year than we had last year. All in all, with everything we can control, we’re doing very well.”