Province taking steps to support Fort Erie Racetrack

The provincial government is taking steps to ensure the viability of the Fort Erie Racetrack while also raising the historic border oval's profile within Ontario's horse racing industry, according to Minister of Finance Charles Sousa.

At Monday's regular Fort Erie council meeting, Mayor Wayne Redekop announced he had sent a letter to Sousa asking for action to provide more hope for the track – such as it being added to the Racing Alliance, an industry coalition that has no representation from Fort Erie.

Redekop said that Fort Erie not having a spot at the alliance's table is contrary to Premier Kathleen Wynne's plans for a sustainable horse racing field in the province.

"It looks like the government is going in a completely different direction," Redekop said in the announcements portion of this the meeting, also claiming Fort Erie is entitled to a greater portion of off-track betting revenues.

In a statement provided by Sousa's office this week, Jessica Martin, his senior communications adviser and press secretary, said horse racing is vital to rural communities across Ontario, a reason the province provides $100 million annually to the industry.

The Fort Erie Racetrack has received $7.9 million each year since 2010.

"We can also assure you that we do not favour one track over another," she said.

Sousa also recently ordered an audit of the Fort Erie Racetrack to find operational efficiencies in an effort to ensure the long-term sustainability of the 120-year-old facility.

"He understands this work has been completed and parties are now reviewing the findings and exploring possible opportunities to make improvements. Discussions continue between the government, OLG, and Fort Erie on how to manage their financial challenges," wrote Wilson in an email.

During question period at Queen's Park on Wednesday, Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates said Fort Erie was very co-operative in the audit process and hopes its results will be released soon.

"They accepted it and opened every door," said Gates.

"It's my understanding that Fort Erie passed the audit with flying colours," added Gates.

Responding to Gates in the legislature, Sousa said the Fort Erie Race Track should be a part of the alliance, agreeing it should not be left out of industry conversations.

"We are acting upon it – we are actually going to support the small tracks," he said.

"We will work together to benefit Fort Erie," he said to Gates.

In 2012, the slots were removed from the Fort Erie Race Track by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

Tony Bitoni, senior manager of media relations and corporate affairs for the OLG, said his agency is also looking forward to the audit results when asked if other forms of betting, such as sports books and gaming machines, could be implemented into the track's plan.

"We are now reviewing the findings in collaboration with the parties," said Bitoni.

"In the meantime, OLG and the horse racing industry continue to work together on a proposed a long-term funding agreement which incorporates industry feedback and is intended to contribute to industry sustainability over the long term," he added.

Near the end of last season, track officials said wagering was down by 15 per cent as a result of a stabling policy handed down by Woodbine, limiting the number of trips horses could make to Fort Erie in one year.

Operators in Fort Erie, as well as politicians, were highly critical of this direction – saying the Toronto track had no right to impose these rules.

This policy has been scrapped and will not be in place when the 2018 meet begins at the end of May.

"That's definitely a step in the right direction," says Tom Valiquette, chief operating and financial officer of the track.

Another issue that he would like to see resolved is the amount of race dates scheduled – hoping for the 37 that have been granted to increase to 40 – the amount given last year.

"Going backwards is going to have a detrimental impact on us," he said.

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