'The Fort' will be missed

There are moments, fleeting and at the same time monumental, that without bluster, thunder or lightning can change a life. There is no instant of catharsis, no rapture but something not yet defined becomes clearly inevitable.

I had one of those moments one sunny day, though the exact date and even the year is now lost to memory. The '60s will suffice. The last innocent generation came of age in that decade and one summer day, I walked into a thoroughbred racetrack for the first time.

The memory of that day remains vivid. This was nothing like the track at which I had first been exposed to racing at the offhand suggestion of my father, made my first bet, won -- a eureka moment in itself in which a horseplayer was made. That was a small, half-mile fairgrounds harness track. This was very different, uncharted territory for a know-it-all college kid -- a vast expanse of grass, an infield landscaped and throbbing with floral color, a walking ring with these massive, muscled animals at arm's length. The scent of popcorn, hot dogs, cigar smoke and manure seemed to blend as if joined in nature.

Somehow, I knew at that moment that this was the place for me and though there have been many other racetracks since then, I have not left.

The track at Fort Erie is in Canada, just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y., my hometown, and by the time I returned, both racetrack and formal educations interrupted by three years, eight months and one day of service to the country, Sandy Hawley was riding most of the winners. Phil Ranallo, second winner of the Eclipse Award for newspaper writing (the year before Red Smith) was covering racing, often from the viewpoint of a character called Harry the Horse, for the long defunct Courier-Express. The education of a still-neophyte horseplayer was resumed in earnest.

The town of Fort Erie was in those days dominated by Chinese restaurants and strip joints. Neighboring Buffalo, even with its steel mills and factories operating at full tilt and its grain elevators full, was never a hotbed of racing. But the racetrack at the other end of the Peace Bridge, first opened in 1897, was part of the landscape, a summertime stand on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit and home to the Prince of Wales Stakes, second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. Four thousand was a capacity crowd. Cuban cigars were available legally. The Canadian edition of the Daily Racing Form was a 50-cent tabloid. Charles Hatton. Joe Hirsch. You read. You learned.

Buffalo nowadays is far from the thriving industrial city it was in the early '70s. The region has seen decline span decades without horizon. Less than 20 miles to the north, at Niagara Falls, large casinos have been built on both sides of the border. Another is under construction in downtown Buffalo. The racetrack at Fort Erie has limped through long and hard times but even the casino, opened in 1999 and hailed as the track's savior, has fallen victim to the current, ubiquitous fervor to expand gambling opportunity exponentially. The starting-gate bell may have been heard for the last time in southern Ontario.

The Buffalo News reported this week: About 190 employees who work in the horse racing department, but not the adjacent casino, were told Monday afternoon that "it appears that the ... track will not be able to continue live racing in 2009" and that their employment would be terminated March 31, according to a news release from the track's owner.

In a news release, the owner, Nordic Gaming, which has for some time unsuccessfully sought financial concessions from the Province of Ontario, said it cannot "continue to absorb the substantial operating losses year after year" and must "begin preparing for closure. This decision has been a difficult one for the company; one which Nordic has delayed for several years."

So, it is a very real possibility if not a fait accompli that the seventh-oldest North American racetrack has reached the end, a casualty of time and economic tide. Its closing will take a toll on a group of people who managed to make a living running bad horses at "The Fort," and will be faced with surviving on what they call the "B circuit" in Canada. It will be missed by a handful of horseplayers who still find it a fine place to spend a summer afternoon. If no solution is found before May and Fort Erie remains shuttered, its passing will be noted by the racing press and lamented briefly in the nearby region, but will for the most part pass unnoticed, a footnote to the news of the day.

The real shame is that a link will be lost in the chain because at tracks like Fort Erie, small regional tracks far from the major-market, big-time racing they may not experience first-hand, people are drawn to the game. Racetracks are visceral. If you have found the right place, you know immediately. The more difficult task as these small tracks vanish is finding the place.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.