Reinvigorated Fort Erie track ready for action

Brad Peters, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:27 PM ET

The cold, wet drizzle of rain dampened a lot of spirits Monday. But not at the Fort Erie Race Track, where Daryl Wells Jr. was in an upbeat, optimistic mood.

The track’s director of communications was downright jovial as he toured the sprawling track grounds, obviously pleased with the growing buzz of activity in the backstretch ... and just as happy with the weather.

“We usually get a big snowstorm right around St. Patrick’s Day,” said Wells. “It makes getting around the training ground next to impossible.”

As he drives through the horse stable area of the track, nodding at the growing number of trainers trickling into the facility, leading their horses to the workout areas, he says, “I’ll take this any time.”

And as he says that, you get the impression that he is talking about more than just unpredicatable springtime weather.

‘Unpredictable’ is also an appropriate word to describe the situation surrounding the fate of the track itself over the last few years. A high-profile development plan from foreign investors never materialized and their long-term commitment to the facility was in question, resulting in the formation of the new management group – the not-for-profit Fort Erie Racing Consortium.

It’s the creation of that entity that has reinvigorated the track and brought a new sense of enthusiasm and optimism to the facility.

“It’s a great little track we’ve got here,” said Wells. “Thoroughbreds are a joy to watch. There’s a real excitement to watching a thoroughbred run with a jockey on board on a beautiful afternoon.

“As long as I’ve been here, I still enjoy coming out in the morning and watching them train. Even in the afternoon, I’ll go down to the rail and watch a race. There’s a lot of excitment in the thoroughbred racing. And of course, there’s the gambling.”

It’s a strange dichotomy that the one thing that secures the success of live racing – gambling – is also the largest challenge facing the track.

“We have a lot of (gaming) competition,” said Wells. “There are the two casinos in Niagara Falls, obviously the one in Seneca, they draw from us. We’re trying to keep people interested in thoroughbred racing. We’ve got promotions – family days, our big Father’s Day event and the Prince of Wales Stakes. We have to keep them keeping back. It’s been difficult, but we have a new outlook this year.”

Not only has it been difficult maintaining fan interest, but with the uncertainty hovering over the track, sustaining owner and trainer enthusiasm has also been tough. However, Wells says that the new consortium has addressed some of those concerns.

“(The consortium) have a lot of ideas. They’ve been meeting with all the employees and the management. We’re putting our heads together ... and everyone’s excited.”

Trainer Daryl Ezra echoed Wells assessment of the new management structure and the buzz surrounding the track.

“The horsemen are more relaxed, there’s a lot less stress on us to start the season,” said the trainer who had the fourth highest win total last season. “The uncertainty seems to be gone.

“We’re looking forward to three more years or racing here.”

Ezra says that accompanying the sense of security is a renewed feeling of involvement into the success of the track.

“The new consortium is more interested in hearing from us, in getting the horsemen more involved. Everyone has ideas about the track, we all come from somewhere, we have experience and have seen different things that have worked well at different tracks.”

He said it’s all about increased benefits: What’s beneficial for the horsemen, the track and the fans.

Ezra will be starting with a dozen horses at the track this year, but suspects that he may run more horses at the border oval as the season progresses. He said he hopes that there will be more racing fans in the stands to see the horses run, but he recognizes it’s tough to develop a new fanbase.

“The truth is, our core audience is getting older. To grow the sport, we have to start attracting younger fans. We’re still a sports and entertainment product. We have to find new ways of getting the fans out to see the racing,” Ezra said. “The new group understands that because they have been listening to the horsemen.”

As trainers prepare for the start of the 113th season of live racing on May 1, one of the ‘new ways’ of getting fans to the track may be through the re-introduction of quarter-horse racing to the historic oval.

Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said she is still working with the Ontario Racing Commission on a pilot project to bring quarter-horses to Fort Erie.

“There’s been no decisions made as of yet ... (as to) how we’re going to integrate the quarter-horses,” said Leslie. “It should probably be made very shortly, in the next two or three weeks. We’re still ironing out the differences and the different options we have. It’s going to happen, we just don’t have the details.”

Subject to regulatory approval, the track will offer 78 days of live racing. Opening weekend will feature live racing Saturday through Monday. Beginning the following weekend, the track will begin its regular schedule, racing Sunday through Tuesday, through to Oct. 26.

The $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel in Canada’s Triple Crown, will run July 25.

– With files from Ray Spiteri


Videos

Photos