24 October 2013

The Options For Fort Erie Race Track Right Now

I'm getting tired of reading John Snobelen's (nonsensical) ideas for a Fort Erie boutique world class meet.  Please John, that solves nothing. 

Fort Erie is needed in Ontario as a B meet for thoroughbred horses, and it needs to run at least 6 months a year to compliment the A racing that goes on at Woodbine.  Nothing wrong with adding a week or two of A racing at the Fort, but I don't see Woodbine giving up the A dates for that, but really, that is besides the point.

I thought the idea of the panel's report was to save horse racing in Ontario, and also set it up for growth in the future.  I fail to see how thoroughbred racing will grow under the new plan. 

What the plan does is keep the status quo at Woodbine.  They'll be able to keep purses up, but lets face it, they have had ample time with slots enriched purses to become an A track, but they are still not perceived in the same category as the California or New York A tracks.  A step below, but that step is a tough one.  Don't get me wrong, they have been doing many things right in attracting US handle of late, but there still seems to be a stigma when it comes to attracting the best trainers in the world to hang out for a while.  Woodbine is what it is, the top track in Canada.

What the plan doesn't do, is take into account the micro-factors that keep thoroughbred horse racing alive.  The panel did seem to grasp it on the harness side.  Of course, harness racing with more horses means more agricultural jobs, but how do you justify 6-9 B harness tracks, and no B thoroughbred tracks.

Lets look at exactly why a Fort Erie B meet is needed.  The answer is simple, it is why do horses race at Fort Erie in the first place?  The purses are much higher at Woodbine, why not just race there?  The fact is that most horses start off there, they either can't handle the competition at Woodbine (some are born without enough talent, while others just get slower with age and infirmities) and some can't handle the polytrack (Fort Erie has a dirt track which serves as an alternative).  There are also some horses that are bought in the US or Western Canada and shipped in to race at Fort Erie, usually by barns that are based at Fort Erie, so as to have a supply of horses that can provide a living.

The way this plan reads (and there are definitely many unanswered questions...final report, yeah sure), is that there will be 35 B thoroughbred dates.  So lets assume that these dates will be run at Woodbine on Thursdays, and at Ajax Downs (an undesirable bullring with no backstretch).  The cost to train these horses will still be $80+ a day.  Horses will have to be on the Woodbine backstretch if they have any hope of competing.  No way will they come off a farm to face horses dropping in class that are training at Woodbine.  The cost will be manageable for horses able to compete on the poly and win, but most horses don't win.  A good betting 10 horse race has 8 horses that won't break even for a month of training after a race is run.  And it is unlikely B horses will have as many options to race each month in order to have a few kicks at the can.

Owners of these cheaper horses will give up on them.  Now, a lot of owners are in the game to have fun.  Making money is nice, but the reality is that if an owner can be close to even, they are content.  The opportunity for them is that they may hit it real lucky with one horse or two, but that is part of the dream and why they own.  Many like watching their horses live as well.  The small owners with their partnerships is one of the best way to get new gamblers into the game as well.  But if an owner of an underperforming horse has to pay too much to train, they will have no choice but to sell the horse as a riding horse (if they can find a buyer) or go through the paperwork and race at a B track in the States.  The idea of doing this with a healthy, but slow horse, is beyond discouraging for most small owners.  They will leave the game.  And when you take out potential owners of horses, you kill demand.  Ultimately, it is the breeder who will suffer the most.  Thanks to the Liberal government's decision to end slots at racetracks, Ontario horses on average, have never been cheaper in a long time.  The report that just came out, does not change things, in fact, on the thoroughbred side, it makes it worse.

Horse owners and breeders in Ontario need an out, and that is where Fort Erie comes in.  Fort Erie has a backstretch where horses can train daily, and owners are rarely charged more than $50 a day by most trainers at the Fort. 

If it is the intent of the panel to kill Ontario thoroughbred breeding and just making it affordable for the very few, then excluding the idea of a B track is the right thing to do.

Look no further than the cancellation of the CTHS Winter Sale.  Breeders knew there is no demand for Ontario breds, and this happened after that "amazing" report came out.

Fort Erie was purposely given the shaft by the panel.  Yes, $7.9 Million year is a lot (well, not really when compared to $1.1 Billion blown by the Liberal government to save two seats), but the reason Fort Erie needs that much is that they no longer get rent for slots.  And the reason they don't have slots is the Liberal government and OLG wanted to prop up Niagara Falls gaming numbers (and I doubt that worked out for them, as most of the Fort Erie slots players are playing in Buffalo or quit playing slots that much).  In fact, the whole idea of Modernizing Gaming by putting slots where the people are, has been an abysmal failure because the only acceptable place for slots in Ontario is at racetracks.   This is why the OLG is now giving out $100 million a year for rent to tracks across the province.  The tracks share used to be $160 million a year, so they did get a hair cut, but the tracks were probably getting too much in the first place. 

To add some intrigue on the Fort Erie situation.  NDP leader Andrea Horwath recently stated she will do all she can to keep the racetrack alive (and that means at least six months a year for the 600 or so whose income directly comes from a Fort Erie that has its lights on).  She even went as far as stating that she would reinstall SARP.  I don't know if that is possible, but if it is, it has to scare the heck out of any prospective casino operators who might be interested in running slots (again, that was part of the big plan that the OLG had and I'm not sure to what degree they are pursuing it now that a Toronto casino looks almost hopeless to be a reality any time soon).  PC leader Tim Hudak finally said something other than it is a shame what the Liberals have done,  when he stated that he would make sure Fort Erie had at least another 10 years of life if he is elected.

Another thing that is overlooked by some, is that the idea of the report and Racing Live is to make horse racing have the ability to come closer to be sustainable on its own two feet.  By getting rid of home markets and sharing betting revenues derived from internet wagering, as well as sharing in on new OLG products, possibly a lottery, sports wagering, etc., there is potential for growth, as long as a track is part of Ontario Racing Live.   However, not only does Fort Erie not have gaming zone status, they have been omitted from Thoroughbred Racing Live, which means that if the report goes through, Fort Erie will get no share of these revenues.  They can't grow or become sustainable, even if they wanted to. 

Sports betting would a great project in Fort Erie, which neighbours Buffalo.  Buffalo has a tremendous sports fan base, and sports fans like to bet on games.

There is also news that the auto track is now going ahead.  A 65,000 seat stadium, one mile from Fort Erie racetrack.  That alone is reason to bring back slots to Fort Erie.  Why chance it that the auto racing fans may go to Niagara.  Many who want some gambling entertainment will want to gamble somewhere closer, and if not at Fort Erie, they are likely to go to Buffalo instead.

Bottom line.  Fort Erie is being singled out, and denied the opportunity all other tracks have.  It isn't right.  The entire economy of Fort Erie will be in a recession for years without the money the track recycles to the local population.


First, Fort Erie should define itself as a B track only.  Race $4,000-$10,000 claiming races exclusively.  $5,000 starter allowance races and in house stake races are OK once in a while.

Race either Mondays and Tuesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays so as not to compete with Ontario A racing at Woodbine.  Fort Erie needs to have handle and the bigger the handle, the more likely new bettors from all over will be attracted to their product.  Fort Erie should compete at times when the least amount of racetracks are offered in North America.

Any bigger purses should be geared towards Ontario bred claiming races.  I've stated this many times, in order to increase the value of all Ontario breds, the cheaper Ontario breds have to be more valuable to being with.  Doing this will key in potential owners to buy Ontario.

Fort Erie needs to be included in Thoroughbred Live.  If they need $7.9 million a year, they should get it, but it can include their share of the thoroughbred betting side as well as their share of the new products brought in by the OLG.

Of course, they need to have their gaming zone status given back to them.  Give them 200 or 300 slots and pay the track some rent (this will further reduce the $7.9 million they need).

If an additional showcase week happens, coincide it with the Friendship Festival, and have the Friendship Festival at the track.

Reduce takeout so as to attract more cost sensitive players and to keep their live customers in the game longer.

Give out larger purses for races that attract 9 or more betting interests.  Give less for those that attract 7 or less.  Horseplayers bet a lot more, the bigger the field size.

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