05/02/2007 11:00PM

Slots competition forces cuts


FORT ERIE, Ontario - Fort Erie opens an 84-day meeting Saturday that runs through Oct. 30. That's a reduction of 20 days from last year's schedule.

Total purse money last year for the 104-day meet was $13 million. This year, the projection is for $10 million.

The drastic measures were taken due to dramatically reduced revenue in recent years from the 1,200 slots in the adjoining casino. About 75 percent of the purse money comes from this source.

In 2003, when purse distribution averaged $188,000 daily, there were some 3,000 slot machines within a 60-mile radius of this U.S.-Canada border town. Last year, there were 16,000.

To maintain last year's daily purse distribution of $125,000, a decision was made to cut the 20 days.

Also, off-season wagering this year is down 20 percent.

"Our challenges today mirror the challenges we had in the mid-90s when this place was about to close," said Herb McGirr Sr., Fort Erie's director of racing.

"We've all pulled together and are doing our very best."

The result is that almost $500,000 has been assembled for an advertising campaign in western New York that was launched on Wednesday. The participants are the track, the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, the Duty Free Shop, the local Holiday Inn, and local and provincial governments.

"We're not just sitting here waiting to go down with the ship," said McGirr.

A casualty of the cost cutting is the $250,000 Bison City Stakes, the second leg of the triple tiara for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies. Woodbine will now host that stakes.

The $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of Canada's Triple Crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds, will take place on July 15.

On the same program two other $50,000 stakes will be carded - the Daryl Wells Sr. Memorial and the Ernie Samuel Memorial stakes. Both turf races have been shortened to five furlongs from 1 1/16 miles.

The $125,000 Rainbow Connection, a five-furlong turf race for Ontario-sired fillies and mares here Aug. 19, is the other stakes highlight of the meeting.

Last year there were 20 Cup races, each with a purse of $30,000. The number of these in-house stakes has been dropped to nine and the purses have been reduced to $25,000 this year.

There were about 750 horses on the grounds at midweek, Gostlin said. At this point last year there were 850.

Eighty-six horses were entered for the opening nine-race card. Five of the races will be at 4 1/2 furlongs and four at five furlongs.

After Saturday's program, live racing during the month of May will be conducted only two days a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays. Sundays will be added in June.

During the peak months of July and August there will be four racing days weekly, Saturday through Tuesday. With the exception of Breeders' Cup Day, Oct. 27, Saturdays will be dropped for the final two months.