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Fort Erie track in race to survive

Ido not envy the man. Jim Thibert got a temporary reprieve. Now he has to turn the second chance into a springboard to survival, instead of just a stay of execution.

It will not be easy.

Thibert is 59, a robust, balding, hand-clasping guy who heads the consortium that runs Fort Erie Race Track. For the past 116 years, it has provided Western New Yorkers a pleasant escape from the thump and clang of daily life. Forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and spend an afternoon watching – and wagering on – some of the most glorious animals on the planet.

Alas, the sport of kings has gone begging in recent years. The Fort Erie track has endured a multipronged assault from lotteries, casinos and a tougher post-9/11 border crossing. The provincial government turned a concern into a crisis last year when it kicked out the crutch of trackside slot machines that for years had propped up the pony business. Widely seen as a political move, it was predictably blasted by the 60,000 Ontarians whose jobs are buckled to the horse racing industry.

For Fort Erie’s track, the only thoroughbred outpost within a 90-minute drive of Buffalo, the $6 million cut of the slot proceeds was the difference between breaking even and breaking stride.

The slop deepened last fall, when the track was – in a blunderous oversight – not included in a provincewide horse racing survival plan. The bugler’s fanfare on closing day last October sounded like the equivalent of taps.

The reprieve was announced last week, at a trackside news conference that – for Thibert and cohorts – marked the end of months of back-barn negotiating. Fort Erie would be among the tracks thrown a one-year lifeline until everybody figures out how – or if – slot-free thoroughbred racing can stand on its own four feet.

Sitting in his office Wednesday, Thibert placed his reaction to the one-year reprieve as somewhere between “relief” and “satisfaction.” If I were sitting in his saddle, I would add another adjective: “nervous.”

Waiting 28 minutes to place a parimutuel bet is not going to cut it in a 4G world of Twitter and Tumblr. Nor does decoding a racing program provide the instant gratification of, say, jabbing a button on a slot machine.

“We need to attract younger people,” Thibert said. He is a pragmatist. He was weaned not on the backstretch but in the back office, trained as an economist. By day, he runs the Town of Fort Erie’s economic development agency. No blinders of sentimentality cloud his vision.

He knows the track has to add attractions to attract a crowd. Potentially the biggest of them is an in-house Sports Book. Thibert said provincial legislators are pushing to legalize it and to make Fort Erie the pilot project.

If it happens, the now-vacant slots building would morph into a mini-Vegas. Want to lay odds on a Bills game, or any other sporting event? No need to seek out the neighborhood bookie or access a sketchy offshore Internet site. Just drive across the bridge and plunk down your money, all clean and legal.

“I think that we will see it within the next two years,” Thibert said.

Add sports betting to the thump of thudding hooves, and you have the makings of a new business model.

To Thibert, it smells like survival.