Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Fort Erie Race Track 1897-2012?


On a wet, windy, Fort Dreary day, my mother and I paid one final visit to Fort Erie Race Track, a place we'd been to hundreds of times in the 1970s and 80s. My parents enjoyed the odd wager back then, and they would tow me along to whichever track happened to be open that day. From Orangeville to Greenwood, Flamboro to Fort Erie, I got to see a lot of mud, sweat and horse plops and got to see a slice of life that most people don't.

From sweat boxes in jockey's dressing rooms, to getting my picture taken with Sandy Hawley, to becoming friends with other kids who got dragged to the track by their parents. The last day of the school year wasn't sad, but the last day of the fall meet at Greenwood was. It'd be another four months before I'd get to see that bunch again.

Last days are indeed sad when you know that it just might be a real last day. Today, Tuesday, October 30 was supposed to be the last day of live racing for Fort Erie's 115th year. The track had been on rocky ground as various other forms of gambling had diverted punters' dollars to lotteries, bingo halls and casinos. The track's fate might have been sealed long ago were a slot facility not installed in the moribund Grandstand section of the track in 1999. Revenues were strong for the first few years, then gradually declined as casinos were opened on the U.S. side of the Niagara River, and tougher passport restrictions made cross-border travel more of a hassle for Americans who previously had no need for such a document.

What was deemed the final nail in the track's coffin was hammered in by soon-to-be-former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty who announced that the Slots at Racetracks program was going to be phased out and the Province's gambling industry was going to be "modernized". In other words, they're going to try to locate casinos and slot facilities where the money is (i.e. Toronto and other larger cities). The loss of 210 jobs at the slot facility at the end of April will now be augmented by hundreds more in the Track part of the facility, which is scheduled to close its Off Track Betting facility on December 31, 2012. Hope remains for a return to the border oval next year with new owners and perhaps new management, but for now, Fort Erie is dark.

Today's card of racing was supposed to be its last. Hurricane Sandy caused a change in plans, with track officials not willing to risk injuries to riders or "equine athletes" as their press release put it. Yesterday's card finished with Krz Executive winning by four lengths over Silver Hoofbeats. In case you missed it, here it is:

Photos taken on Sunday, October 28, 2012 at Fort Erie Race Track, Fort Erie, Ontario.

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