10/09/2009 12:00AM

No plan in place to ensure a 2010 Fort Erie meet


FORT ERIE, Ontario - A 78-day meet for 2010 was recently agreed upon by Fort Erie track management and the local Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. However, the future of Fort Erie is eerily similar to that of a year ago when the 2009 meet was in doubt.

Last year the track and the HBPA also agreed to hold 78 racing days, but the track's owner, Nordic Gaming, told horsemen that it had sustained losses over the last few years due to declining slots revenue and a reduction in tourist traffic and that it was not certain a meet would be held.

The scenario looked bleak as the New Year's passed and no support from the provincial government was forthcoming.

Then, in late February, the local Economic Development and Tourism Committee, led by executive director Jim Thibert, with the support of the town of Fort Erie and its mayor, Doug Martin, came through with an offer to purchase the track as a not-for-profit consortium. The proposal also included $2.5 million finacial support from the EDTC, the town, and the Ontario chapter of the HBPA to enable Nordic Gaming to operate the track through 2009.

The offer to purchase Fort Erie is no longer in play but the need for government assistance still tops the agenda of the EDTC.

Nick Gonzalez, vice president of the HPBA, remains optimistic.

"I am aware that purchase offers have been made by three or four parties, some realistic, some not," said Gonzalez. "There are items still being discussed in that regard. There is also the possibility of leasing the track from Nordic or a new owner."

The Thoroughbred racing circuit in Ontario comprises two tracks, Woodbine and Fort Erie.

Some horses from Woodbine need a drop in class and have a place to compete at Fort Erie. Often a Fort Erie card has Woodbine shippers in every race.

Fort Erie runners also ship the other way, primarily in the spring and fall when a number of the barns at Woodbine are either leaving or returning from tracks down south.

The need for this two-way street is recognized by the Ontario HBPA. A new board of directors elected in late September will be considering a number of horsemen's issues, and the Fort Erie situation will be a critical item on the agenda.

In the short term a $2.5 million guarantee to Nordic Gaming would ensure a 2010 season at Fort Erie, but a consensus of trainers on the Fort Erie backstretch say that a long-term solution is needed. A number of horsemen, including Daryl Ezra and Butch Morden, believe the problem can only be solved if the current group - The Ontario HBPA, EDTC, and the town of Fort Erie - is broadened to include the Canadian Horse Society, Woodbine Entertainment, and the provincial grovernment.