When I was little, I shared a wish particular, I think, to young girls. I dreamt of having my own horse. Growing up, I read “The Black Stallion” (not to be confused with “Black Beauty”) and watched reruns of “My Friend Flicka.” It seemed entirely plausible that I could be shipwrecked with a horse on a desert island, or own a racehorse that won any race it ever ran in (with, of course, myself as the jockey).
Like most childhood dreams, this never came to fruition. However, thanks to my Dad, I was gifted with something close, that being a passion for thoroughbred racing. Unlike a little girl’s wishful thinking, the knowledge he imparted is a truism that will live with me forever.
It started with a visit to Fort Erie Race Track, a jewel of a place just across the Canadian border. I must have been very young – the Prince of Wales dining room seemed enormous and overwhelming in its sophistication, as is the way when one is little and everything else is big. The sights, the sounds and my parents’ excitement watching the horses run left an indelible impression.
I was fortunate to grow up during a golden age of racing. Dad and I watched three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s – Seattle Slew, Affirmed and the peerless Secretariat. Who can forget the neck-and-neck battles of Affirmed and Alydar, the latter a horse that missed winning all three races by no more than two lengths combined? We yelled ourselves, well, hoarse during those races. Then there was Secretariat’s romp at the Belmont, when no other horse was even in the frame as he crossed the finish line, 31 lengths ahead. It was the greatest race I ever watched.
I returned to Fort Erie many times over the years, taking my own children with me. Its beautiful, flower-bedecked grounds never fail to thrill me.
There is the horses’ walking ring, where you can see the horses up close. The paddock area, where the stables are kept and the daily life of the track takes place. The grandstand, where you can stand right by the rail as the horses thunder past, their hoof beats sounding, as a famous trainer once said, “like a heartbeat.” The lush infield, with its own lake. The jockeys’ bright silks. The betting windows, with their exultant winners and crestfallen losers. And the bugle sounding the horses to post.
A racetrack is a scenic and exciting place to be, particularly on a sunny, summer day.
All my life I have made the trek across the border from Buffalo. As time went by, however, the crowds began to dwindle. I remember traveling to see the Prince of Wales Stakes, a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown run at “the Fort.” A jockey rode up, surveyed the sparse crowd and said in surprise, “not much of a crowd for a stakes race.”
Horse racing as a sport has declined from its glory days. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Off-track betting, casinos, the Internet and the dilution of the available sports dollar all contribute to this. In recent years, too many horses have broken down and been euthanized, a terrible fate to befall such magnificent animals.
As for Fort Erie, its 115 years of racing tradition may come to an end forever this season or next due to its declining fortunes. It would be a big loss in many ways, and a sad ending to this chapter in the sport of kings.