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Fort Erie Race Track on verge of being sold to Buffalo buyers

The Fort Erie Race Track, which has long drawn fans from both sides of the border but was on the verge of closing at the end of the last racing season, is being purchased by Buffalo-based buyers who plan to keep it operating.

The sale of the 338-acre property could close as early as today, a top racetrack official said.

But in addition to keeping the 117-year-old racetrack open, the new owners plan to develop about 200 surrounding acres, according to Jim Thibert, general manager of the consortium that operates the track.

“If it was a hundred-mile journey, we’re on the last six yards,” Thibert said Thursday.

The buyers, whose identity has not been disclosed, are purchasing the property from Nordic Gaming, which has leased the racetrack to the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium. Thibert did rule out Buffalo’s Delaware North Cos., which owns and operates racetracks, as the prospective buyer.

The possibility of new ownership is welcome news for the track’s approximately 200 seasonal employees, racing fans and the business community in Fort Erie. The racetrack has a yearly economic impact of $27 million, and its threatened closing has cast a pall in recent years.

Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin did not return messages seeking comment Thursday.

The future of the racetrack has been in doubt since spring 2012, when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission shut down the track’s profitable slot machines. That fall, the commission opted not to include Fort Erie among the eight racetracks in Ontario that would receive subsidies as part of a five-year plan to help save the horse-racing industry in the province.

A local outcry prompted the province to add nearly $8 million to prop up the track, and the Fort Erie Council this spring approved a $500,000 lifeline for the track from the town’s reserve fund.

Town officials said at the time they hope the track can become self-sustaining in the near future. It’s not clear precisely what plans the new owners have for making the racetrack profitable again, nor is the sale price known.

“We’re very happy with the owners and very familiar with them. Fort Erie and Buffalo are the most binational communities on the border. I think you would be hard-pressed to find communities along the 3,000-mile border that share so much as Buffalo and Fort Erie, and have for 125 years,” he said.

The track is open on 37 race days this season, down from 41 last year, as part of a negotiated, cost-cutting agreement among track officials, the province and the consortium.

The Prince of Wales race – the second in Canada’s Triple Crown – was held last week, with an increased attendance of more than 1,000 people from the previous year, along with increases in concession sales and wagering.

“In seven hours, we moved $65,000 in food and beverages, which is $6,000 more than we did last year when we set the record of $59,000.

In wagering, we did $1.7 million on the day, which beat the previous record of $1.4 in 2005. It happened despite pulling two races off the turf track,” Thibert said.

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