FORT ERIE, Ont. – For Gerry Catalano of Kenmore, whose family has been coming here since the 1920s, the possible closing of the Fort Erie Race Track has his grandparents turning over in their graves.
Anthony Grosse, a parimutuel-betting clerk at Fort Erie for the last 30 years, called the threatened closing a death in the community, robbing the town of both an economic engine and a local cornerstone for more than a century.
And as James A. Thibert, who heads the consortium that runs the Fort Erie track, said of the possible loss of jobs, “This is life and death for 500 people.”
Fort Erie held its 41st and final day of the racing season Tuesday – amid concrete fears that it could be the last racing day ever for the 116-year-old racetrack.
The racetrack that sits only about two miles from the Peace Bridge has been operating since 1897.
If Tuesday was the last day, the death knell was sounded last Friday, when the Ontario Horse Racing Transition Panel announced that only eight such racetracks will be retained – and subsidized – in Ontario. And Fort Erie is not one of the eight.
“It breaks my heart,” the 54-year-old Catalano said, sitting on a bench near the track’s paddock Tuesday afternoon. “There’s so much history here.”
Catalano owns a horse, Titanium Jane, that has raced at Fort Erie. And he remembers coming here in the 1990s, with his grandmother, then in her 90s.
“This is my second home, my Canadian home,” he added. “Some of my greatest memories have come here.”
Those memories may have ended, because the panel’s report suggested that the Fort Erie operation is not economically “sustainable.”
That infuriates Fort Erie Race Track officials, who aren’t giving up without a battle. They say that the deck has been stacked against them ever since their profitable slot machines were closed on March 31, 2012.
Thibert, CEO of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, said that all he’s asking for is an honest and fair evaluation of the facility’s financial viability.
“If they want to talk about sustainability, we would be very pleased to have them look at all the numbers,” he said Tuesday.
“If you put the numbers out there, apples to apples, Fort Erie beats everyone,” he added during a brief afternoon press conference. “No track in Ontario can survive without slot money ... If they take the slot money away from the other tracks, we’re more sustainable by far.”
But one worker who asked not to be identified explained the rationale behind the possible closing.
“There’s just not enough volume of dollars being bet here to keep this place open without the government’s help,” this person said. “Any smart business person would have put the ‘closed’ sign up years ago.”
Spend a few hours at the gracefully aging Fort Erie Race Track and you get the sense that there are other factors at play here, that Fort Erie could be doomed by political partisanship, a focus on more majestic casinos in urban areas and even by an anti-Fort Erie bias.
Buffalonians can relate to that sentiment. Just as most Western New Yorkers think they’ve gotten short shrift from Albany and New York City, many Fort Erie residents feel the same way about their place in the Ontario pecking order.
Even Grosse, the parimutuel-betting clerk who lives in Toronto and has worked at several tracks in Ontario, brought up that possible bias.
“I blame the Ontario provincial government 100 percent,” he said, before Tuesday’s first race. “I firmly believe they mismanaged the funds and the information. They weren’t giving a fair cut of the revenue to Fort Erie, because it was at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Grosse, who’s been the business for 42 of his 64 years, noted that Fort Erie isn’t alone.
“It’s sad, very sad, that the history of horse racing is dying in North America, not only here but in the United States as well,” he said. “This has been like a cornerstone of the community for 116 years. A lot of people made their living here. A lot of great horses have passed through these grounds on their way to other racetracks.”
Susan Wong, a server and bartender who has been working at Fort Erie for 5½ years, said she couldn’t imagine the track closing.
“It’s not just the racing,” she said. “It’s also a social event. Everybody here knows everybody.”
Catalano, the horse owner and track regular from Kenmore, said that since the track lost its slot machines last year, track officials have done everything they could to make the operation viable.
Those officials say that the dollar amounts bet by patrons have gone up about 10 percent per race this year. Admission is free, but track officials estimate that Fort Erie has drawn between 50,000 and 80,000 fans this year, including 7,000 to 8,000 for the Prince of Wales Stakes on July 30. And the track has averaged a betting take of about $60,000 per racing day, for a total of about $2.5 million.
“They’ve done everything they should be doing, but the politics is no different than in the U.S.,” Catalano claimed.
“The politicians aren’t working for the people. They’re working for themselves.”
Catalano and others also addressed the economic impact of the lost jobs.
Those 500 people no longer may be able to afford Walmart, McDonald’s or other stores or restaurants. That can cause a ripple effect that leaves more laid off.
But Catalano also talked about the work ethic of the employees, especially those who work with the horses.
“Right now these people are productive in society,” he said. “They’re hardworking people, up at 5 o’clock in the morning. A lot of them have no education. They grew up at the track, and that’s all they know.”
Fletcher Reid, 53, of Ridgeway, is in his second year working in maintenance at the track, a 40-hour-per-week job for six months.
“To me, it means going out to look for another job at 53 years old,” he said, while also citing the hardship for others.
The strongest attack Tuesday came from Andrea Horwath, leader of Ontario’s New Democratic Party, who blasted the ruling Liberals at every turn, blaming them for doing a great disservice to the horse-racing industry.
She also cited the importance for areas like Fort Erie.
“It’s an industry that supports rural and small-town Ontario,” she said, at a brief press conference on the grandstand’s top floor.
Some people working at the track believe it won’t close, but that it will run on an even more reduced schedule next year.
“My gut is telling me that they’re going to keep it open, but maybe only for a few special events,” Catalano said. “If they shutter it, I think it’s gone for good.”
He bemoaned the thought of no horse racing after 116 years, at a track that still offers an intimate setting.
“That infield is still gorgeous,” Catalano said. “You can stand on the rail, 15 feet from the horses, when they cross the finish line.
“It breaks my heart.”