The “Border Oval,” continues to survive, hopes to thrive
It was a popular song back in the 1970s, a simpler time, and for Fort Erie Race Track, a grander time. The track that sits right over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, NY has seen better and more glorious days, but for some reason, the track is indeed staying alive. In fact, their marketing campaign is, “Alive and Kicking.”
Every horse racing fan has their story of how they became a fan of this great sport. My father, never a big fan, was a big event guy nonetheless. He encouraged me to pay attention to the Kentucky Derby, the Triple Crown and other American events like the Indianapolis 500. In the 1970s, my father used to subscribe to the Indianapolis Star for the month of May. The papers were mailed from Indianapolis to Buffalo and though we were behind a couple days that was the paper to read prior to the running of the Indianapolis 500. To me, Gordon Johncock, A.J. Foyt, and even guys like Danny Ongais were household names, and at my father’s encouragement, I attended five Indianapolis 500 races from 1989-1993 and even the CART 500 at Michigan Speedway after the CART/IRL split in 1994.
Fort Erie was the first racetrack that I went to. It was the summer of 1985, and it was on a Sunday. A high school friend of mine, Rich Samplinski was a big fan; in fact, his father was a part time hot walker or something horse related at the track. With a hundred dollars in hand, we headed across the border to see the horses in action. I don’t remember any of the horses that day, but I do remember crawling underneath the seats, scavenging for change so we could find enough money to re-enter the United States of America. Obviously, we didn’t do very well, but I certainly enjoyed my time at the track and I credit Fort Erie; the place where my maiden voyage occurred.
As for Rich, he was a gifted baseball player, good enough to play and play well for Michigan and Oklahoma. After graduation, he decided to get into the horse racing game and after attending blacksmith school, became one at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto for well over a decade. We’ve lost touch, but I would love to pick his brain and chronicle his experiences at the track.
Like many race tracks, Fort Erie suffered in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Things didn’t look very good until slots came to the track. For a few years, the track was healthy and things were looking brighter. Then, in 2012, the Ontario government decided to pull the slots from the track. The track ran 76 days in 2012, but many thought that without slots, it was doomed.
You may read that slots are coming back to old Fort Erie, but as they say, don’t bet on it, but racing is back for 2015 with 40 days on the calendar. Fort Erie only races on Tuesday and Sunday, which at first appears to be counterproductive, but upon further review, it’s a brilliant idea. Why force the track to race five days per week in front of sparse crowds with small fields. This is a prime example of quantity over quality. When you race five days per week, people can put a trip off, figuring they can go another time, but with a two day a week schedule, you better be planning or you’re going to be missing.
Another brilliant idea is the Tuesday start time. Opening Day is Tuesday, June 2 with the first post at 4:15 pm. We all know that horse racing is steeped in tradition, but I never understood why most race cards are both contested and finished when the majority of people are working. The trainers like the idea of being done by 6 pm, but what about the fans? Starting the card at 4:15 gives people enough time to leave work and bet a few races before the 8:13 final post time.
The track is home to the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown. Like the Preakness, the race is run on dirt at 1 3/16 miles. The Canadian Triple Crown is contested on three different surfaces—polytrack, dirt and turf. This year’s running will be Tuesday evening, July 28, another smart move by track officials. Last year, there were over 9,000 fans and because Saratoga and Del Mar are dark, overall handle increased. Remember, gamblers gamble and if a track is open, there will be wagering. For Fort Erie, why run your biggest races against the big tracks on the weekend, when you can have Tuesday evening all to yourself.
In August of last year, the track was purchased by a group led by Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino and the former gubernatorial candidate says that racing will be secure for not only 2015, but beyond. The Border Oval, as its known is the only thoroughbred track in the Western New York/Southern Ontario area, so that is promising news because nobody likes the idea of living year to year.
The first card has nine races, and a nice number of 87 horses entered, so most races will see full fields. Once again, it’s nice to be open, but having races with fields of four and five doesn’t do much to get people excited.
There have been some great Canadian bred horses in racing history, and Northern Dancer, the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Queen’s Plate winner is considered by most to be the greatest sire of all time. Danzig Moon ran in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and he will be pointed to the Queen’s Plate and hopefully, the Prince of Wales Stakes later that month at Fort Erie.
The track remains picturesque and beautiful despite some tough years, and with a 40 day meet, it races as much as Saratoga does, but of course, it is spread out over five months. The crowds certainly won’t rival those at the oldest race course in the country, but with Fort Erie and Finger Lakes both in Western New York, there is horse racing available to those who want it.
As for my memories of Fort Erie, I will not hold anything against the track even though they took my hard earned money I made from washing dishes, cutting lawns and umpiring baseball and softball games. It’s easier to forgive the track than not be able to go to it.
Until next time.