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Sale of Fort Erie Race Track could, again, restore hope

The years-long saga of Fort Erie Race Track took yet another turn in the past week, as Buffalo developer Carl Paladino was revealed to have purchased the venerable property.

Paladino has publicly stated that he plans to keep the venue alive as a horse racing facility and develop some of the nearby vacant land for other business purposes.

The purchase reflects an expansion of Paladino’s belief in the Buffalo area as ripe for modern property development. Whether or not you agree with the man’s politics, it’s likely that he will find suitable endeavors to fill the space around the track. However, it remains to be seen whether his efforts to enliven the horse racing business will be fruitful.

After all, none of the site’s recent owners have been able to produce a renaissance of the days when the track was a first-class venue for the Sport of Kings.

Keep in mind that horse racing across North America simply doesn’t draw the same crowds that it once did.

In Fort Erie’s case, the proliferation of casinos in the Buffalo-Niagara corridor has been an obvious factor. Heck, there was even a slot machine-based casino on the Fort Erie property for years, which helped the horse racing purses but siphoned off the customer base and severely compromised the charm of the property.

Another contributing factor has been that Fort Erie lost its stature as the only place for high-quality thoroughbred summer racing in Ontario. In years past, horses, jockeys, and trainers would transplant their operations from Toronto’s Woodbine and stage their summer session at “the Fort.” The season felt like a smaller scale version of what’s been done downstate for decades: New York City tracks Aqueduct and Belmont go dark when the meet migrates to Saratoga. Now the closest to those glory days occurs on the day when the Prince of Wales Stakes is run at Fort Erie.

Finally, there’s the 800-pound gorilla: the increased difficulty in crossing the Peace Bridge. In years and decades past, it usually only took a few minutes – and your honesty about citizenship and purpose for traveling to Canada - to get through customs and continue on for the two-minute or so drive to the track. Returning to the States was equally easy; perhaps you avoided a modest traffic jam by going to dinner at King Wah’s or Happy Jack’s.

Now it takes an enhanced driver’s license or passport (a deal-breaker for many retirees who would sooner trek to OTB and follow several tracks at one time) and 15-20 minutes at minimum if waiting behind just a handful of other cars on either side of the border. I’m not looking for customs agents to become Chamber of Commerce representatives, but a visit to the track shouldn’t require long investigations and/or inconvenient wait times.

A day at the races in Fort Erie was once considered part of the fabric of life in Buffalo. Youngsters - the same ones who ate dirt, didn’t wear bike helmets, and made up their own rules in unsupervised playground games – would go with their families and learn how to decipher the past performance charts in the Daily Racing Form, even if they couldn’t (legally) place a bet. Adults knew who the hot jockeys were, could recite facts about some of the horses’ owners, and treated track announcers Daryl Wells Sr. and Jr. as celebrities.

I’m not expecting Carl Paladino to totally bring back the classic vibe that I fondly recall about Fort Erie Race Track. But if he can overcome any of the obstacles mentioned here, he’ll be on the right track - in more ways than one.

www.twitter.com/mikehaim
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