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FORT ERIE, Ont. – It's not Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Bills or even Ted's Hot Dogs.

But for decades, hundreds of thousands of area residents have seen the Fort Erie Race Track as a jewel of Western New York – even if it's across the river in Canada.

Faced with closure since last year, the 116-year-old racetrack is here to stay – at least for one more year and maybe longer.

The racetrack slot machines – which the province ordered closed last year – are gone for good, but officials Thursday said the Ontario government will front the money for one more year of horse races as they scramble to map out a plan for the future.

The move signals a temporary fix for the only thoroughbred horse racing track within 90 minutes of Buffalo. It comes a year after the closed slot machines resulted in layoffs at the track and a hit to the Fort Erie economy.

“In one year we have gone from shock and awe to organization, accountability and prospects for revitalization,” said James A. Thibert, chief executive of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, which runs the track.

“This is why we fought so hard to keep this track running,” added Fort Erie Mayor Douglas Martin, who fought back tears at the news conference.

The future rests largely on the racing group's ability to form a long-term plan to keep the track viable – without the $6 million in slot revenues paid to the track each year.

Details of that plan remain hazy, but officials say a large part of it includes drawing more visitors from Buffalo and Western New York.

More than 80 percent of the track's “day-trippers” – those who drive up for an afternoon at the races – used to come from across the American border.

But in the past few years, that figure has dwindled to less than 20 percent.

The strengthening Canadian dollar, border restrictions and new gambling opportunities in Western New York are all to blame for the decline, officials say.

And solving the problem may be the key for the track's survival.

The town will start with the estimated 10,000 Buffalo residents who retire to summer homes in the Fort Erie area, within a few minutes' drive of the track.

Those residents, many of them wealthy, are prime prospects for recruitment as new horse owners and breeders, officials said.

“They have a vested interest in being here,” Thibert said. “We need to get them back. We need to give them reasons.”

Those include limiting the number of racing dates – this year's schedule will include just 50 days, compared with nearly 80 last year – but adding more horses, and bigger purses, for each race.

Partnerships also could be forged with a planned $400 million NASCAR motor speedway in Fort Erie, and a new format is being considered for the popular Prince of Wales Stakes – the second leg of Canada's Triple Crown.

Those moves, along with other racetrack improvements, could position Fort Erie as one of the premier tracks in the Canadian system, Thibert said.

“It's not going to be an easy fix, but you can bet we're all working towards that,” he said.

The slots were an essential money-maker for Ontario's system of racetracks, and closing the slots forced layoffs throughout the province last year.

But Thibert and nearly a dozen other racing officials Thursday weren't shedding tears for the slot machines, calling them a necessary evil that was never managed efficiently.

And they distracted the track and its patrons from the core mission of the track – thoroughbred horse racing.

In fact, Thibert said, Fort Erie has seen an uptick in attendance over the past three years, even as slot machine numbers were down.

Getting back to the basics of horse racing – from recruiting more local talent to better advertising the thoroughbred brand – is what Thibert said will save the track beyond this year.

But a central part of any long-term solution would appear to include help from the provincial government.

That financial assistance – which dried up when the slots were closed last year – appears to be back, at least for the time being.

Racing officials declined to say just how much in “transitional funds” the province is giving them this year because the government is still negotiating with other tracks that have lost their slots.

But they see the creation of a new government horse racing panel as a promising sign.

The panel, comprising three former top Canadian officials, is charged with creating a long-term strategy for the horse racing industry.

And they see Fort Erie as a major part of that strategy.

Opening Day at the track is May 26.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com