Horses will be racing out of the starting gate at Fort Erie Race Track again this year come May 27.
The Fort Erie Council has made sure of it.
By a 6-1 vote, following a closed session, lawmakers approved $500,000 to help the track.
The money, which came from the town’s reserve fund, was due at midnight Monday to meet the track’s lease payment. The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium ended Monday, necessitating the vote.
“We’re excited we have horse racing this year, and a good business plan that’s sustainable for the long-term future of the Fort Erie Race Track,” Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin said. “With a three-year commitment, it will also enable the horse owners to replenish their stock.”
Martin said he hadn’t anticipated Fort Erie having to foot such a large bill.
“We felt the importance of the track to Fort Erie was well worth the investment. We hope that sometime in the future the track will become self-sustaining, and we will find a way to reduce the burden on the town,” Martin said.
Fears were put to rest that, after 116 years, the bordertown track’s racing days might be over. That was a possibility after the Ontario Horse Racing Transition panel announced last year that the track would not be among eight that are continuing to receive government subsidies.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced $400 million in October would be provided over five years to help Ontario’s horse racing industry. She added another $100 million, with $7.9 millon for the Fort Erie Race Track.
The 37 racing dates this year through Sept. 30 are down slightly from last year’s 41-day schedule. That was part of a negotiated agreement in which the province, the Council and the track consortium made concessions to keep costs down. The province agreed not to take revenues planned from off-track wagers.
“It’s a complex funding formula, but essentially the province is letting us keep the betting on the track, and they’re taking the betting off-track and pooling it provincewide. They’ll give some of it back, depending on whether we meet performance goals,” said Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the Live Racing Consortium.
“I think the future is very good,” Thibert said. “It all depends on how our horsemen respond, because they were the most devastated.”
Thibert said that after so much uncertainty, they have to rebuild the confidence of the employees, the fan base on both sides of the border and, especially, the horse owners.
“The most important aspect is putting on the horse show, and the horse owners – the people who breed, invest and race the horses – were getting beaten down here and elsewhere. We have control now with three years, so that means let’s do our jobs, and we’ll be here for a very long time,” Thibert said.
The track, with nearly 200 seasonal employees, is the largest employer in Fort Erie, generating an annual economic impact of nearly $27 million.