Fort Erie and Fort
Erie Race Track: Implications and Proposal to Province on OMAFRA Transition
Panel Final Report.
Yesterday, (October, 31, 2012) the Ontario Minister of
Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs released the Horse Racing Industry
Transition Panel Final Report.
While this is an extensive evaluation of the current horse racing industry
in Ontario (being thoroughbred racing, standardbred racing and quarter
horse racing) along with a plan for the modernization toward sustainability
of the industry it also turns out to be a decision-making instrument
of the province that has dire consequences for the Fort Erie racetrack,
its employees, its Horsepeople, and service suppliers and most of all
its fans of racing both in Ontario and Western New York. The consequence
which in turn contributes more weight to the already burgeoning negative
load the Provincial decisions and policies impacting the town of Fort
Erie - every one developed without proper (if any) consultation or apparent
regard to the economic impact future of those decisions on the economy
of the constituents of Fort Erie.(ie. urban service boundaries, PSW's,
industrial lands, hospital, etc, etc).
First let me reiterate what I said about six weeks ago when the transition
panel had concluded its initial interviews and when it submitted its
interim plan. Our opinion has not changed, and in fact in many ways
through this final report we agree almost wholeheartedly with 99.9%
of their findings and recommendations.
We wholeheartedly agree and were the first and most consistent and most
constant supporters of;
1) Forcing the tracks into an organization that truly reflected an industry.
2) Pooling some of the resources for promoting the horse racing industry
as a whole and not just relying on whether a tracks marketing success
was fully dependent on a small-market budget.
3) Pooling the provincial resources from slots for the betterment and
use of an industry wide plan for racing rather than the status quo which
was solely predicated on market share areas that made absolutely no
sense and no fairness. For example, why did Woodbine get a market area
of 4 1/2 million people in Fort Erie market area of 400,000, is it any
wonder why over the years Woodbine becomes A track and Fort Erie remains
suppressed to a B track?
4) Our MPP, Kim Craitor worked for the past three years with our MP,
Rob Nicholson on the concept of Fort Erie as a pilot project for sportsbet
and so we support that however point out that the panel has stolen the
concept application everywhere but Fort Erie.
5) Driving the entire business model around consumer demand and building
fan base again, something that Fort Erie developed in their business
model three years ago and has been consistently proving each and every
race day since, consistently beating previous year performance.
We also wholeheartedly agree with the findings and recommendations in
the final report for exploring new horseracing lottery, to allow Ontario
race tracks to offer historical racing products (in USA called "Instant
Racing") , to use the new net revenues as a means to offset future
public investment of live racing, to provide initial and transitional
capital investment to the racetracks provided the funding goes to improvement
of the race track, and for the most part race date reductions in order
to get the new live racing industry back on its feet and into a more
6) We agree with and have been the industry leader in the panel's goal
for creating, through our not-for-profit community-based Corporation,
the intrinsic goals for public-interest principles of accountability,
transparency, the renewed focus on the consumer and a return of each
dollar invested by the government and in our case all earned revenues,
to the race industry and ultimately to Government through either taxes,
commissions, HST, or job creation.
And I want to point out that while the average slot dollars purse money
is 63%, that Fort Erie is the leader in revenue driven purses at less
So upon review and close critical evaluation of the final report, it
is perplexing to wonder why the panel has decided that the Fort Erie
race business is dead, closed...done forever! In fact, the business
should be transferred to another track, specifically denoted as Ajax
“How is that possible?” one could ask…how three intelligent,
past ministers, MPP's, educated and caring panel members so callously
write off Fort Erie Race Track, 115 years of history, all the more than
250 jobs, one of the biggest employers in the area and the entire horse
industry of Niagara? Well...it seems self-evident in the report that
they assumed Fort Erie was closing on its own. We have no doubt after
having met with the panel that they know who we are, what we stand for,
what are performance goals are, what we have achieved and the importance
to both the horse industry and the community and rural Ontario...because
they told us those very same things.
Perhaps it's because the HBPA (Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective
Association) in their submission to the panel failed to properly represent
their members in Fort Erie by writing off trackoperations. Perhaps because
after the initial report when the panel requested additional time, they
did not indicate renewed consultations (but apparently that occurred).
In looking at the final report stakeholder list, everyone's on there,
with the exception of Fort Erie. We were never invited back for subsequent
stakeholder discussions. The HBPA did not advise its members in Fort
Erie the second round of discussions were taking place, and would not
involve them or promote their interests. That, as constitutional members
of the FELRC (Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium), they would not have
the courtesy to advise us of either their plans initially for that submission,
which threw Fort Erie under the bus, or subsequent discussions with
the panel on the future of racing, but clearly did not represent Fort
Erie. Or that as partners to an agreement with the track to race for
the past three years they would, during the tenure of that contract
not live up to its obligations to disclose significant decisions and
actions that would have any effect let alone a completely negative effect
on its partners of Fort Erie.
Perhaps as well, the panel came to that decision made public by the
Minister without apparently any consultation with our MPP was steadfastly
supported the community of Fort Erie and the racing community for the
past four years. In fact, throughout this entire process thrust upon
the racing community to the Drummond report and the OLG decisions of
last March, our MPP, Kim Craitor was looked to by the entire racing
industry, including OHRIA, HBPA and standardbred associations, as the
leader of the Liberal caucus to support the future of the horse racing
industry in Ontario, not one of those players even providing them with
a heads-up on what's happening or what could happen to his own communities.
None of this bodes well for the Government's goal of trying to co-opt
the various tracks and Horsepeople organizations into a cohesive industry...
save and except the money they are making available as an enticement.
Hopefully for the province, and hopefully for the industry, the goals
the Panel and the Province will be met over time and we will see stabilization,
a modernization and the sustainability to the industry. Of course, all
that will have to be developed on a performance basis predicated on
good business decisions and all of which must be fair, straight up and
So, and assuming that the panel and the province honestly want to meet
those goals and with all due respect to both those agencies, then let
me take this opportunity to provide our presentation in the form of
open consultation that was neglected in the second round of panel discussions
with the goal of providing honest, fair and transparent information
that I'm sure any reasonable person would see as logical arguments for
sustaining Fort Erie Race Track on the business case basis.
So let's clear up some confusion, and put forward the business facts:
• Fort Erie does not have to sell the race track property in
order to continue racing. The idea behind finding a purchaser for the
property is to find one who is more willing than the current owner to
develop this prime 338 acres into a major destination attraction right
on the QEW, next to Buffalo New York, less than 10 min. from Niagara
Falls and less than 90 min. from downtown Toronto. That goal would yield
more traffic on-site and additional reasons for consumers and tourists
to attend the track and patronize Fort Erie.
• With the concepts and principles expressed in the panel report
Fort Erie Race Track could well survive, if not prosper immediately,
with significant stability and future growth.
• The panel should reconsider the decision on Ajax Downs in favour
of Fort Erie for the following reasons: the future of the quarter horse
industry would be better served at Fort Erie, we have three years of
successful quarter horse racing at Fort Erie and have a proven record
of significantly outperforming Ajax Downs in terms of pari-mutuel wagering
results. If purses and racing are to be predicated on sustainability
to pari-mutuel wagering how is it possible to make a decision.so obviously
in favour of the proven track record of Fort Erie in this regard?
• Further, Fort Erie has the boarding/stalling capability for
1,200 horses, whereas Ajax Downs has only recently added a very small
• Fort Erie as a complete backstretch, so vital for the operations
of the race track, while Ajax Downs has literally none. Fort Erie could
split the backstretch under the current plans for reduced race schedules
easily, 50-50, with thoroughbred racing and accommodate both industries
and future growth.
• Fort Erie can offer full training facilities seven days a week,
while Ajax has very limited facilities.
• The longer quarter horse races (i.e. 870¡¦s require
a ¡§hook¡¨ on the track and major run-out area
that Ajax Downs cannot accommodate).
• Fort Erie has proper and experienced starting gate crews, professional
clockers on-site, veterinarian¡¦s on-site, full male and
female jockeys quarters, valets, briefs Jockey and tack.
• Fort Erie has a full and certified security department and
round-the-clock security on the backstretch.
• Fort Erie has a centralized race office and racing Secretary
proven and experienced in both thoroughbred and quarter horse racing.
Indeed our racing secretary has the most experience and connections
to the North American Quarter Horse industry by far.
• Fort Erie already has a proven professional marketing and special
events department for both breeds, and proven centralized marketing
coordination for both thoroughbred and quarter horse events and advertising.
• Fort Erie has a very experienced simulcast manager and department
and proven capabilities of handling, on a centralized basis, both thoroughbred
and quarter horse simulcast. Fort Erie simulcasts its product throughout
North America, into Central and South America, Africa and Europe.
• Fort Erie has a larger and more capable simulcast facility
as compared to Ajax Downs.
• Fort Erie has a larger racing surface and a modern track. It
is the only remaining thoroughbred dirt track in Ontario, and we also
have a fabulous turf track.
• Fort Erie has a safer racing surface and we have experienced
and professional race support teams.
• To appeal to a broader community of fans, food and beverage
operations and special events are absolutely necessary and Fort Erie
has been proving over the past three years that in these areas we excel
in innovation, ideas and fan acceptance. Our Tiki-Bar and our very successful
twilight racing are examples.
• As far as accountability and transparency are concerned, Fort
Erie does not have to reach a goal as we epitomize the ideal. The FELRC,
since its inception as a community-based not-for-profit Corporation,
included the major stakeholders of the HBPA, the town of Fort Erie,
the EDTC of Fort Erie, the head of the SEIU union, the MPP and the ORC
as oversight for the province.
Fort Erie would not a recommend a cutback so severe as to the 30 days
racing proposed by the panel because, for racing to succeed, Horsepeople
need to be able to make a return on their investment in rearing and
training horses for live racing. However, given the very great thoughts
that went into this report, the 30 days of racing (if carefully planned
and executed), combined with 30 days of quarter horse racing (in innovative
iterations) can succeed and can be economical in Fort Erie. Our deliberations
with senior staff yesterday concludes that it is both doable and desirable.
Fort Erie would also be eligible for the public investment which would
allow us to specify tell the Province what improvements we would need
to capital in order to upgrade the facilities, provide for modifications
necessary for the adoption of new on-site gaming products, new fan based
events, backstretch improvements and consumer oriented improvements.
Clearly Fort Erie is in the best business position to
immediately engage all the principles put forward by the panel and the
Province for sustainable operations and potential growth, (with our
goal being towards 90 days of racing if we can prove it effective and
marketable. All of which would be eminently more business savvy than
the risk of trying to establish first time thoroughbred racing in an
area and at a track that have not the experience, not facilities, not
the market, and would duplicate major capital costs and major staffing
costs while creating a redundancy in both.
So, in light of the fact the Panel made its decision in the Final Report
based on misinformation as it relates to Fort Erie, the FELRC, specifically
myself, senior staff, our SEIU member, the Mayor and the MPP would be
pleased to receive an invitation by the panel to begin negotiations
in order to meet the deadline of December 1, 2012 contract to secure
the future of live thoroughbred and quarter horse racing in Fort Erie
to the obvious benefit of the Ontario horse racing industry.