10/23/2008 11:00PM

Track's future rests on several elements

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - The racing season at Fort Erie concludes Tuesday, and the question on everyone's mind is whether live racing at this 111-year-old border oval is in jeopardy. There is still room for optimism, but a concerted effort by a number of interested players is needed for racing to return next year.

Management has not applied for racing dates for next year, but that option is still available. Fort Erie opened its gates in 1897 and has managed to keep operating through a number of economic downturns and now faces one more challenge.

Currently owned by Nordic Gaming Corporation, a subsidiary the El-Ad Group development company, the track has not shown a profit in recent years. Casino revenue, which supports purses, has dropped considerably. In fact, the track and horsemen's percentage of that revenue has fallen to the point where racing days have been cut by 20 percent and purses halved.

A proposal by El-Ad Group to build a major hotel, housing, and entertainment project adjacent to the racetrack and upgrade to the grandstand and backstretch may have been compromised to some extent by the recent worldwide financial crisis. A request to the provincial government for assistance to help the live racing program remains on the table.

A Nordic spokesman, Stephen Ayers, has said that the track's future depends on a supportive decision by the government and the necessary interest and participation of the town, the local horsemen's association, and other associated parties.

Two apprentices break through with wins

Apprentice Cory Spataro rode 44 horses at the Fort before winning his first race on Oct. 7. He was in a jubilant mood after the race, and when he said, "I would like to win three more before the season ends and then hang up my tack for the winter, as that could extend my apprenticeship," some observers thought he was overreaching. But they were soon proved wrong.

Last Monday, only 16 rides and two weeks after that first win, Spataro won his fourth race and then put away his tack until next year.

Another apprentice here achieved his first and second wins last Sunday. Eric Edwards, 34, brought home Carysfort Light in the first race and then doubled up with Genuine Princess in the fifth. It took Edwards over 70 races to win his maiden, and his whooping holler and whip salute as he crossed the finish line in the first race, reminiscent of a rider winning the Kentucky Derby, clearly identified the moment.

"That salute with my whip was my way of thanking the Lord," said Edwards. "It had been a long dry spell, and I was grateful to finally get that first win behind me."

Edwards went on to thank Jim McAleney, leading rider at Woodbine, for his help and guidance. He also made special mention of Harold Ladouceur, the owner and trainer of his first winner.

Bright N Golden named best

The 2008 Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association awards dinner was held last Thursday. Bright N Golden won as top male sprinter and horse of the year. Smiling Jordan won distance male honors for the second year in a row. Turf male of the year went to the old campaigner Sandspit.

Nasty Fever took home best turf female and distance female honors. The male and female claimers of the year were Choreography and Rosie Regent, respectively. Rosie Regent also won female sprinter of the year. Other categories included best claim, Harveys Victor, and dash champion, Krz n' Flashy.

In the trainer and jockey categories, Lyle Morden, who has a high win percentage, was voted outstanding trainer by his peers, and David Garcia was voted the best rider.

The leading apprentice was Melanie Pinto and the leading female rider was Cory Clark. Claudia Rabstein was voted top assistant trainer and Jean Milligan groom of the year.

Entering the final days of the meet, jockey Chad Beckon and trainer Mike Newell appear to be the likely winners in the rider and trainer standings.