The longest winter in the modern history of Fort Erie Race Track finally ends at 1:05 p.m. Sunday when the horses blast out of the gate to start the oval's 108th season of thoroughbred racing.
"I'm looking forward to it," jockey Jack Lauzon said. "A lot of us have stopped since September, and you can see the eagerness on everybody. There's a lot of people who've been awful patient for what we've had to go through. Not only me, but I'm talking about everybody. We've been dying to do this."
"I'm excited. I love racing, I love my job," said trainer Layne Giliforte, who spent the winter racing at various southern tracks.
"I love Fort Erie, it's home. . . . By this weekend, I'll have 20 horses, and then I have another half-dozen coming next week."
The good news at the track this spring is the track itself. Owner Nordic Gaming Corp. called an early halt to racing after Labor Day to make time for a racing surface reconstruction costing about $2.5 million Canadian. The new surface opened for training April 14 and has been applauded by horsemen.
"It's got a nice cushion on it," said Paul Souter, trainer and exercise rider.
"Everybody's in love with it," added jockey's agent Ian Watson.
The bad news on the backstretch is the decline of prize money.
Because of a drop in slot-machine revenues at the adjacent casino, purses have been sliced by about 15 percent from their levels at the end of last year.
Under the current purse schedule, bottom-level maiden (nonwinners) sprinters with a claiming price of $5,000 will compete for $9,000 purses. Top-level $18,000 claimers will go for $19,000.
Racing secretary Tom Gostlin said about 800 horses were stabled on the grounds Wednesday and another 400 are expected in the next few weeks.
As usual, the early weeks of the meet will feature sprints. But this year, most of the early races will be at 4 1/2 furlongs instead of 5 furlongs.
"We have horses that have been laid off since September. (The shorter distance) gives them a little edge," Gostlin said.
To offset the slide in slot-machine revenues, management hopes to increase revenues from off-track sources.
Mutuels manager Chad Gates said Fort Erie is under contract to simulcast its races to several new outlets, including New York City Off-Track Betting parlors on Mondays and Tuesdays, and California on Saturdays and Sundays.
For the first time, Fort Erie races will be simulcast in Western New York, where they will be shown at Buffalo Raceway on Saturdays and Sundays. (The Hamburg track has no simulcasting on Mondays and Tuesdays.)
Gates also said Fort Erie has invited Western Region OTB to carry its races in the Buffalo area, although the invitation has not been accepted.
"We are looking at it," WROTB President Martin Basinait said. "We are certainly interested, if we can make it work."
In addition, Fort races will be carried via satellite on the Horse Racing Network and will be available at Forterieracing.com.
With all the betting locations, Gates said the track should break its record for one-day handle ($1.9 million) set on Breeders' Cup day in 1996.
FORT ERIE FACTS
Season: May 1 to Oct. 31
Post time: 1:05 p.m.
Race days: Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Add Tuesdays starting May 24, plus Fridays July 1 and all of August.
Major stakes races: Prince of Wales ($500,000 purse), July 17; Bison City ($250,000), July 4; Rainbow Connection ($125,000), July 24.
Web site: www.forterieracing.com
Telephone: (800) 295-3770