Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fort Erie: North America's 7th Oldest Track and the Future Seems Bleak

The Turk exchanged some emails with a hero of his this week, The Happy Handicapper, Robert J. Summers, of the Buffalo News.

The Turk freely admits that Robert's bravery in referring to himself in the third person allowed himself to throw off this social stigma and embrace an inane literary technique. I digress.

The Happy Handicapper, HH, has written recently in our local newspaper, The Buffalo News, about the plight of Fort Erie Race Track, and the uncertain future for the backside staff and the people who earn their living from or just enjoy that track (Like The Turk and the Turk brood).

This article appeared on the Front Page of the Buffalo News and was written by the HH with help from Tom Buckham. I thank the Buffalo News for the use of this article.

Updated: 12/16/08 12:50 PM
Fort Erie Race Track likely to close; 190 workers would lose jobs
Employees told owner will try to avoid shutdown

By Robert J. Summers

The oft-rumored demise of the Fort Erie Race Track — part of the Buffalo and Southern Ontario area sports scene since 1897 — may have moved closer to reality Monday.

But there’s still a chance the thoroughbreds could enter the starting gate May 3, the scheduled opening day of the track’s 112th season.

About 190 employees who work in the horse racing department, but not the adjacent casino, were told Monday afternoon that “it appears that the . . . track will not be able to continue live racing in 2009” and that their employment would be terminated March 31, according to a news release from the track’s owner.

But the release also said owner Nordic Gaming Corp. “will pursue every effort to try and find a way to continue racing in 2009.”

Those efforts apparently will involve pressuring the Ontario provincial government to give the money-losing track — one of the Town of Fort Erie’s major employers and tourist attractions — some sort of financial concessions.

“We’re still hopeful we can come to some agreement that is mutually beneficial,” said Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin.

“We’ve been working with the province for some time. We thought the province was ready to come to the table and provide the partnership necessary to make this work,” Martin said.

"We are in touch with senior provincial staff and politicians and they continue to discuss with us HOW they might keep the track operating and this reinforces what many at the various ministries have told us time and time again. .‚.‚. they do not work this hard to fail and they want to keep racing alive in Fort Erie," Martin told a news conference at Town Hall today.

"We in Fort Erie are frustrated and perplexed [at provincial inaction]," Martin said

"Unfortunately our government has not responded yet with any effectiveness and, given the timing, delays will just run out the time for [Nordic] to be able to mount a 2009 season."

“This is a real travesty,” said Sue Leslie, president of the Ontario Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents horse owners and trainers. “I’m still a little bit in shock that we’ve let it come to this.

“There have been months and months and months of meetings and negotiations . . .,” Leslie said. “The province has failed the industry and the town. . . . Maybe this will prompt the province to make a move.”

Nordic said it cannot “continue to absorb the substantial operating losses year after year” and must “begin preparing for closure.”

Company officials said they continue to work with all of the stakeholders, including the track’s unions and their members, and will comply with its obligations under their collective agreements as well as with Canada’s Employment Standards Act.

The announcement followed a two-year “Save the Track” campaign.

Leslie said the horsemen’s association contends that if racing is discontinued, the Ontario- owned slot machines must close also.

“The full intent of the slots being put on the race track property was to enhance live racing. . . . If there’s no live racing at Fort Erie, the slots shut down,” she said.

Martin said one of the problems in dealing with the provincial government is that a number of departments, known as ministries, are involved. They include the Ontario Lottery Corp. and ministries focusing on economic development and trade and foreign investment.

“There has been an election and change of minsters . . .,” the mayor said, “[and] people haven’t been brought up to speed.”

Fort Erie is the seventh oldest active track in North America, trailing only Saratoga (1864), Pimlico (1870), Greenwood (1871), Fair Grounds (1872), Churchill Downs (1875) and Hawthorne (1891).

It has long been staggering financially.

The Ontario Jockey Club, its owner since 1952, sold it in 1997 for a nominal fee to a group of investors that included Nordic. Now a subsidiary of the El-Ad Group headed by Yitzhak (Isaac) Tshuva, an international land developer, Nordic is the sole owner.

At the time, the track’s future seemed bright because of the legalization of a slot machine casino on the premises. The 1,200-machine casino — operated by the Ontario government — opened with much fanfare in September 1999. At first, the money rolled in, and profits were divided under a formula (10 percent to race purses, 10 percent to track ownership and 2 percent to the Town of Fort Erie) that seemed to make everybody happy.

But since then, business conditions have worsened.

As Leslie put it: “A lot of the problems that have resulted in Fort Erie are due to things out of the control of the ownership or the horsemen. . . . The province has put giant casinos within a very close range of Fort Erie. . . . the no smoking ban, the [falling value of the] dollar, the difficultly crossing the border. . . . a lot of things have led us to where we are.”

Despite the downturn in business, Nordic in 2007 unveiled plans for a $300 million (Canadian) hotel, entertainment and housing complex on land next to the track and casino.

In February, Nordic agreed to subsidize the purses for the 82-day racing season in 2008 — a total of about $9 million — to keep the sport alive while planning continued for the building project.

At the time, Nordic said it wanted the province to provide a larger share of slot-machine revenue and other assistance.

Staff writer Tom Buckham contributed to this report.

And a follow-up article appeared the next day. I again Thank The Buffalo News for its use.

Fort mayor urges action by province
By Robert J. Summers

FORT ERIE, Ont. — Like a horseplayer with tomorrow’s program in his pocket, the mayor of Fort Erie still lives with hope — at least when it comes to his town’s financially staggering racetrack.
Even though the Nordic Gaming Corp., owner of the historic Fort Erie Race Track, has given employees notice that they may be terminated March 29, Mayor Doug Martin hopes the Province of Ontario can provide a way to open the track for a 112th season of racing May 3.
The answer, he told a Tuesday news conference at Town Hall, lies with unnamed officials in the Ontario provincial government who have failed to take any action on requests for financial relief for the troubled track and its proposed development project.
Nordic, which underwrote about $7 million in losses in the 2008 season, has proposed construction of a $300 million resort on the track property. But Nordic has requested that the province grant the project some tax relief, reported to be about $50 million, over 10 years.
“We in Fort Erie are frustrated and perplexed [at the provincial inaction],” Martin said.
“Even as late as this morning, we are in touch with senior provincial staff and politicians and they continue to discuss with us how they might keep the track operating and this reinforces what many at the various ministries have told us time and again. . . . They do not work this hard to fail and they want to keep live racing in Fort Erie.”
Whether they succeed in time for the 2009 season remains to be seen.
Martin called Monday’s termination notices to about 190 track employees “a big step in the wrong direction.”
“These layoffs, if undertaken, will start a dismantling of the human resources necessary to maintain the specialty skills and training for the industry to run effectively,” Martin said.
Martin said the provincial officials have been working with James Thibert, president of the Fort Erie Economic Development & Tourism Corp., “for the the last three years to find a way to make this work. The problem is we haven’t had an offer, or a solution from the province yet.”
“Every time we get close to the finish line, there is a change in the ministerial level and then the new minister has to be brought up to speed as to what’s happening. . . . We are asking them to sit down and have real dialogue with the owner, with the partners, and make a deal,” Martin said.

The Happy Handicapper belongs in the Buffalo News more often, but until horse racing gets its real estate back in the sport pages, his writings can often be often found at the Buffalo News Blog, Sports, Ink.

Again, Thanks HH, Thank You Buffalo News, and I hope we don't lose another piece of horse racing tradition, North America's 7th oldest race track, Fort Erie.


Geno said...

Turk goes for Baffert today at HOL in the 6th...firster!

I enjoy Summers also, too bad he's relegated to the big days in the print version...

Happy Holidays to the Turk and family.

Handride said...

TBA year end note