09/20/2013 11:42AM

Fort Erie: Uncertainty over 2014 season clouds track's future

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FORT ERIE, Ontario – With less than a month to go in the season, it’s that time again at the Fort Erie Race Track when the worry begins.

It begins for the town, horsepeople, fans, and all those personnel and businesses related directly or indirectly to the operation of the track. Will there be a racing season in 2014?

Because of a major change in the overall funding for Ontario racetracks in 2012, it was not until April 2013 that Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne authorized $5.6 million and a 50-day (400-race) 2013 meeting for this border oval.

That late decision resulted in a reduced horse inventory at the track, half the size of last year’s, because many horsemen had decided to race elsewhere by the time the meet had been authorized.

Jim Thibert, chief executive officer for Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, which operates the track, waited patiently through the winter and spring for the announcement. He said at that time, “We need to know well in advance that funding will be available for a 2014 season.”

Thibert reiterated that need again at a press conference here Sept. 13.

“We need approval as soon as possible,” said Thibert, “and certainly before our race season ends on Oct. 15.”

Thibert recalled the problems of a late 2013 decision and how it affected horsepeople and others connected to the racetrack.

“The lack of knowing if they had job, if they had to sell a home, carry horses over the winter, retain their business, etc., cannot be something repeated this year,” Thibert said.

Thibert cited an economic study done for 2010 to 2012 that concluded the track’s annual economic impact to the region exceeds $20 million. Thibert’s point was that the track, tourism, and the related local industry provide provincial coffers a substantial return on investment.

According to Thibert, that investment in 2014 will need to be $7.9 million for a 400-race season, with an increase to $8.7 million for 500 races.

At this stage, however, there is still a question on whether a race meeting at Fort Erie will be on the slate for next season.

The provincial government’s three-person transitional panel and Wynne will advise if the needed funding will be forthcoming for 2014. Their decision is expected next month.

Thibert said Fort Erie will be applying for the authority to race from 2014 through to 2016.

“This request will be based on a three-year evergreen contract, where there is a rolling three-year contract at all times so that when one year ends another is automatically added,” he said. “The evergreen proposal would again instill more confidence and stability in the industry as a whole. It would result in investment growth, a needed horse supply, and assurance for horsepeople and our rural communities.”

Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin and provincial parliament member Kim Craitor expressed support for the evergreen proposal.

Said Craitor: “If accepted, this community will have the long-term needed stability that has been missing in recent years.”

Rick Cowan, Fort Erie’s chief operations officer, credited racing secretary Eric Johnson and the race office for a successful two-day-a-week season in 2013.

“Because of the horse shortage, we had to eliminate Monday racing and still achieve our goal of 400 races in the season,” Cowan said. “At this time, the numbers indicate that we will come very close to the goal.”

Tom Valiquette, the track’s chief financial officer, said onsite wagering is up 12 percent from last year and attendance is up.

The Prince of Wales, held on a Tuesday evening rather than the traditional Sunday, attracted the largest crowd in years at the track.