My Saratoga-Fort Erie Road Trip ’12 came to end in grand style on Monday with my first ever visit to the Canadian track. I found the 115-year-old race place, just on the other side of the border from Buffalo, to be nothing short of charming. I only hope my first visit there will not also be my last.
Politics and I really don’t mix. At best they bore me, at worst they disgust me, so it should come as no surprise that I rarely address the topic within the pages of this blog dedicated to the love of thoroughbred racing, but what’s currently happening at Fort Erie is just sad.
Slot machines, installed at the track in 1999, had been a boon to Fort Erie in the early years, but with new casino competition in the area, and the reduced support by local American patrons since 9-11 law changes, they became far less profitable to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. For a track that had become dependent on the slot machine revenue, losing the slots could quickly become a death sentence. And sure enough, precipitated by a March decision by the OLG to pull the slot machines from the track at the end of April, the Fort Erie track board voted in June to close the facility by the end of the year. The tough decision came from the reality that without the money from the slots, the racetrack simply could no longer be economically feasible. As things stand today, Fort Erie will close on December 31, with a final day of live racing scheduled for October 30.
Hundreds of people have already lost their jobs when the slots were pulled and hundreds more will be out of work after the closing of the track. As of Sunday, these were nameless, faceless people to me … they are no more.
I arrived at Fort Erie about three hours before the first race on Monday, as I wanted plenty of time to look around on my maiden breaking visit. I wasn’t there more than a minute or two when I said hello to a friendly looking security guard. I expected a quick, “sure” on my request to look around a little, but Mickey did much more than that, taking me on a tour of the entire facility. She has been working at Fort Erie for 13 years, and calls the people who work there a family. I knew Mickey was a real racing fan when she informed me of her disappointment on having missed the 2000 edition of the signature race at Fort Erie, and the middle jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes, because she was not allowed to be at the track that day. The reason, you ask … Giving birth to her son. Next, I met the person who runs the media department, Elissa Blowe. When I say she runs the media department, I mean she runs it … in fact she is the media department. Happily doing the work of at least three people, Elissa is the person to talk if you want to know anything about the track, and as proven race after race on Monday, as the person in front of the camera on the Fort Erie feed, she is both an astute handicapper and horsewoman. A human dynamo, Elissa is doing everything she can do on her end to make the track that she loves an economic possibility. Through all of this, she still took the time to be as friendly and gracious a host as I’ve seen on my countless racetrack visits.
Finally there was Allyson Walker, an assistant to Elissa. Ally was interested in my visit, and easy to talk with. As an exercise rider for Roger Attfield, working at Fort Erie is only one part of her connection to racing, but you could tell how she feels about the place. As we talked about my experience there, Ally helped me to describe what Fort Erie is like. A smaller version of Saratoga, a poor-man’s version of Keeneland, Fort Erie has old-time charm with aesthetic beauty. Like those two better known tracks, I loved the trees that gave the place a real outdoor, park-like feel. In another example of pride, Ally reminded me not to forget to mention the tiki-bar on the track apron just before the finish line that rivals what can be seen at Gulfstream Park.
I met many other people there on Monday … my friends, Gene Kershner and Nick Costa, as well as, fans, owners, trainers, jockeys, and employees. They were without exception friendly, into the racing, and proud of Fort Erie.
I planned on this article being about a lovely and quaint old racetrack, with the most beautiful infield I've ever seen, that I had the pleasure of visiting for the very first time on Monday. A picturesque site that has hosted champions like Northern Dancer, With Approval and Dance Smartly during more than a century of racing history would have made for a great subject matter. That all changed though because of the people I met there. These are the people that will be most affected if Fort Erie Race Track is no longer. They are hard-working, very friendly, and lovers of horses and racing, just like you and me. One of them described what is going on right now as, “heart-wrenching.”
I can only imagine a small part of what they are going through, because after only a single day, I liked Fort Erie too much to say goodbye.