We did not even get a proper chance to say good-bye.
The folks who run the little jewel of a racetrack in Fort Erie, which ended its season Monday, expected a helping hand. Instead, they got a knife in the neck.
At the wrong end of the figurative shiv were not just the track's owners. The list of victims includes horse owners, trainers, jockeys, stable hands and thousands of racing fans – myself included. A government report released last week was expected to chart the road to recovery. It instead assumed the track's demise.
“This is a complete reversal of what we anticipated,” said Jim Thibert, who heads the consortium that runs the track. “Everyone is deflated.”
I discovered Fort Erie racetrack, with its landscaped, lake-dotted infield, soon after I moved here 30 years ago. When my kids were little, we would sometimes go on a weekend afternoon – the girls playing on the parklike back lawn while I made donations at the betting window.
The addition of slot machines swallowed most of the lawn a decade ago. But the revenue crutch that came with the slots seemed like an acceptable trade-off for the track's survival.
Fast forward to last spring. Ontario shut its racetrack slots, putting Fort Erie and other tracks on life support. Last week's government report was supposed to suggest a remedy. Instead, the consolidate-resources cure sacrifices Fort Erie. In a single sentence, it concludes that the track will “close.”
Thibert is a white-haired, firm-gripping force of nature who also runs Fort Erie's development agency. He anticipated a survival plan. Instead, a provincial panel wrote off Fort Erie's 115 years of racing past – and any future.
The panel's racetrack remedies include pooled revenue, fewer racing days and other-sports betting. All of which, said Thibert, would work for Fort Erie.
“If we had these tools,” Thibert said, “we would survive, and thrive.”
It looks like Fort Erie was scratched in favor of Ajax Downs, a smaller track east of Toronto that lacks the barns, backstretch and development acreage of Fort Erie. But the track's big city proximity – and the political muscle of its principals – apparently hurdled it over Fort Erie. Thibert vows to fight the closing. It looks like a long shot.
If the track shuts, it chips a piece off of our quality of life. Fort Erie is the only place to see thoroughbreds within a 90-minute drive of Buffalo. With its low-key buzz and understated appeal, the track has for decades been a pleasant (and sometimes profitable) afternoon getaway for countless folks.
The track's appeal went beyond betting. There is something special about standing near the paddock, close enough to touch these magnificent animals as they step towards the oval, guided by jockeys in rainbow-hued silks. I will miss the place, and I know I'm not the only one.
The apparent death sentence is bad enough. Worse, the track was not given a chance to fight through the homestretch. It seems like less of a defeat than a betrayal – and a twisted punctuation on 115 worthy years.