Fort Erie: To Preserve the Grand Old Track
On a recent holiday we decided to stop at Fort Erie to visit the grand old track and take in the races for a Tuesday twilight card. Having not been to the “The Fort” in many years, I was keen to see for myself how the venerable one hundred and eighteen year old establishment is doing.
There have been countless obituaries proclaiming the demise of Fort Erie Race Track for the past two decades. In fact it was announced in 2012 that the track would close for good at the end of that year. The loss of prestigious racing dates and races, combined with the loss of slot machines and a sagging decline in Thoroughbred racing as an attraction to the public’s entertainment dollar, has hit Fort Erie very hard. A very sad state of affairs for one of the most beautiful and accessible tracks in North America.
A dedicated and conscientious revival by locals, in conjunction with horseman and women with a sense of historical preservation, as well as a civic pride in the history of this most beautiful track, has led to the possibility of a “Phoenix” rising from depths of despair. While the restoration of Fort Erie will take time and a lot of work, the early returns are encouraging.
We had a wonderful time at the track. The beauty of the infield, with the lakes and flowers, the well kept paddock, and the overall ambiance of the place has to be seen to be appreciated. Yes the place could use some paint and a few minor fixes here and there, but the charm is still intact. The people who work the totes and the concessions are some of the most friendly and attentive people we have come in contact with in a long time. There was a sense of pride from the track workers, which always makes for an enjoyable experience for patrons.
We did not do well at the handicapping end of our day. No worries though, as a bad day at the windows is still better than a good day at work. In between the third and fourth races a very powerful storm passed through, which delayed the start of the fourth race. The rain was so strong in that fifteen minute period, the track went from fast to sloppy. This did not dampen our day, nor did it to the rest of the patrons in attendance. The card carried on, and the races became more intriguing and exciting.
There is an atmosphere at Fort Erie of a country track. However this country track is steeped in history, is larger than most country tracks and has been witness to some memorable Thoroughbreds who began or augmented their historic careers at Fort Erie.
Fort Erie was where the one and only Northern Dancer began his rise to the elite of the turf world in 1963 in his first race, a maiden allowance, with a resounding victory on this track. He would follow up that win with his first stakes race, in the prestigious Summer Stakes on the wonderful turf course at the “The Fort”. This race is now run at Woodbine in Toronto, one of the many such prestigious races which have been moved from Fort Erie to Woodbine through the years.
Dance Smartly would suffer her first defeat in her illustrious career at Fort Erie in the Ontario Debutante Stakes, but would return a year later to win the Prince Of Wales Stakes on route to her Canadian Triple Crown during her stunning undefeated three year old season.
Other Canadian legends such as Triple Crown winners New Providence, Canebora, With Approval, Izvestia, Peteski and Wando won the Prince Of Wales Stakes on route to their Triple Crown achievements. In fact the Prince Of Wales Stakes has seen the likes of L’Enjoleur, He’s A Smoothie, Overskate, Archer’s Bay, Ace Marine, Archworth, Canadian Champ and Uttermost to have won the most prestigious event on the yearly Fort Erie racing calendar. The last four listed were also winners of the other two races which make up the Canadian Triple Crown, but were not identified as TC winners until recently. The designation of the Canadian Triple Crown was inaugurated in 1959, the year New Providence won the three races. Racing historians have now rightly included the four as TC winners.
Ben Burb became a local favourite of the Fort Erie faithful after his stunning victory over the highly acclaimed Queen’s Plate winner Alydeed. Alydeed was considered a lock to win the race but Ben Burb would run him down on a very muddy track to capture his place in Prince Of Wales Stakes history. Ben Burb would then go on to win the Molson Million at Woodbine later that year beating the likes of that year’s Eclipse Award horse of the year A.P. Indy among others.
Another race which had held much prestige at Fort Erie was the Niagara Handicap. This race was moved to Woodbine in 1986 and has become the forerunner to the grade one Northern Dancer Turf Stakes, a very prominent race on the Canadian racing calendar. While at Fort Erie, the race was won by such notable horses as as Momigi, One For All, Belle Geste, Dom Alaric, Grey Monarch and the legendary Puss “N Boots.
Puss “n Boots holds a special place in the hearts of Fort Erie folklore. He raced a remarkable one hundred and twenty-five times in his career, winning twenty-six, placed second sixteen times and third eleven times. He was well bred being a son of Solar Slipper out of a Bull Lea mare named Cat Key. His third generation shows the sires Windsor Lad, Solario, Bull Dog and Sickle. However it was not for his racing career or his pedigree as to why Puss “N Boots is remembered so fondly. No it is actually for his decision to go for a swim in one of the infield lakes, during a race, as to why Puss “N Boots is a local legend.
14,106 fans were witnesses on the day when Puss “N Boots jumped the inner hedge of the inside turf course and made a bee-line to the cool refreshing waters of the infield lake at the top of the home straight. Jockey Ronnie Behrens was sent flying in during this impromptu decision by his mount, he would be unhurt, while Puss “N Boots took a flying leap into the lake. The horse’s trainer Frank Merril, a member of the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame, would have to “fish out” Puss “N Boots. The horse would be ok after his cooling off swim.
The event is marked every year at Fort Erie with the running of the Puss “N Boots Stakes, naturally a turf race. The winning jockey traditionally takes a flying leap into one of the infield lakes in honor of the legend that is Puss “N Boots.
During the reshaping of Thoroughbred racing during the 1940’s and 50’s by the Ontario Jockey Club led by E.P. Taylor, Fort Erie with its scenic setting and top drawer dirt and turf courses, was one of only two of ten tracks to be kept. The OJC would invest a sizable sum of money to update the track in the day and would then hold lucrative and prestigious events at the border track. This would be the heyday of Fort Erie Racetrack and would go a long way in establishing the track as a premier destination for horsemen and patrons. It would be known as “The Canadian Saratoga” due to its beauty and the beauty of the surround area within the region. The close proximity of Niagara Falls, Crystal Beach, historic settings, as well as being on the border to the US, went a long way to promote the virtues of Fort Erie.
Times change, as do the whims and fashion of social entertainment. Many of the historic tracks in North America have either ceased operations, or are in danger of doing so. Fort Erie has been on a tether for decades now, but it is still surviving. This is due to the dedication and hard work of those who see the track for what is; a lovely place to enjoy racing, with a colorful and long history, in a friendly and co-operative atmosphere of wonderful people who are genuine in their attempts to make the patrons feel wanted, welcome and enjoy their outing.
When one is at Fort Erie, one can see the great traditions and imagine the glory of this grand old track. To look at the grand stand, the lovely paddock and the beautiful infield, one can only lament if this great place should have to concede defeat and close the doors. It would be a travesty of travesties if Fort Erie cannot continue.
Fort Erie patrons get to experience racing up close and personal. There is no over commercialized hype to detract from the fun. In other words, Fort Erie is a refreshing throwback to what makes horse racing enjoyable.
The town and surrounding area are very aware of promoting the track. There are many hotels in the area, within a very short distance from the track, that not only have excellent accommodations, but are very reasonable for rates and are willing to assist track patrons in their holiday. The hard times are however very evident in the town with many closed shops and businesses on view.
I am a member of the Facebook “Save Fort Erie Racetrack” facebook.com/groups/290186761054068/ group, which posts historical antidotes, promotes upcoming racing events, as well as reporting the latest challenges facing the track’s survival. This is a vital avenue for all concerned with the future of Fort Erie. I am not writing this article due to my membership, but as a concerned racing fan, having seen and experienced the track in the present and knowing the history of a great venue.
The track does not have be a top drawer track on the pecking order of tracks like Woodbine, Belmont, Keeneland etc, but it must be able to survive and prosper.
There is always a need for tracks to operate as a “B” level since not all horses are champions. These are the races and horses that have always been the blue collar workers of the sport. Blue collar has a right to be supported. The infrastructure is already there at Fort Erie. I have seen this myself, and I have to say that this track can become very important to the sport, if the sport would take notice and help out.
I hope that you, having read this little piece, would find it in your hearts to pay Fort Erie a visit. Don’t expect flash and glamour if you do so. But do expect to be treated with warmth and dignity and to enjoy racing for the fun and excitement the sport has always brought. Fort Erie will deliver what racing is, ENTERTAINMENT!!!!!!!