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Province signs on to save horse racing

Originally published Dec 17, 2009

The provincial government has agreed to a subsidization formula to keep thoroughbred racing alive at Fort Erie Erie Race Track for the next three years.

In lieu of the current deal where 10 per cent of slots revenues is paid to the track operator — which amounted to about $4 million this year — the province will pay a flat subsidy of $5.6 million per year to the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, which will operate the track as a non-profit corporation.

The current 10 per cent formula will remain in place for the horseman’s association as does the current municipal agreement.

The Consortium has negotiated a three year lease of the racing facility for $100,000 the first year and $650,000 for each of the next two.

“There’s a hell of a lot of risk here,” said Jim Thibert, general manager of the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corporation.

He outlined the deal Wednesday morning to a crowd of about 100 horsemen, employees and others during a press conference.

“It’s three years provided we can make it work,” he said.

The Town of Fort Erie will also be asked to fund the Consortium in the amount of $500,000 per year from its proceeds from slots revenues, which was approximately $1.2 million this year.

Mayor Doug Martin said he’s confident town council will approve the expenditure.

“It’s not without risk for the town,” he said at the conference. “Council is fully aware of the proposal and I’m fully confident it will have the support.”

The Consortium is currently composed of the EDTC, the Town, and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. A representative from the two unions has been chosen but won’t be appointed to the board until later in the process, Thibert said.

The province will add quarter horse racing to the card. This features a different equine breed racing a distance of a quarter mile — two furlongs in horsemen’s parlance.

The agreement with the province calls for a minimum of 78 race days, but the Consortium is shooting for 80 days with a minimum of eight horses each race plus 100 quarter horse races integrated into the regular racing card over the course of the season.

It needs 80 race days with $100,000 per day in purses to work, Thibert said. The plan also needs wagering and food and beverage sales to return to 2008 levels and that slots revenue to the HBPA does not drop.

The plan is also betting that there will be strong interest in quarter horse racing and that it grows over the three years.

There is little financial wiggle room for contingencies, like a major breakdown in the infrastructure.

“If something goes wrong with the plant, there’s no deeper pockets behind us,” Thibert said. “We’re all in this sink or swim.”

He told the group that everyone has to contribute, the owners, trainers, employees.

“Fundamentally, this is an employee lease,” he said.

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