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Fort Erie's Jim Thibert: Horse Racing is Family

Three weeks ago I decided to take my 12 year old daughter Ellie to watch the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown at Fort Erie Race Track in Fort Erie. Although I work for Racing Future and am a horse person, I really wanted to go un-announced so I could experience racing at Fort Erie the way any regular fan would. I wrote about the experience Ellie and I had at the Prince of Wales, the crowd, the excitement and what it was like to stand on the rail cheering home my daughter’s favourite horse, Coltimus Prime. That night after the races were over, Jim Thibert, CEO of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium saw me in the crowd and waved a hello. Jim and I talked about racing and the fans and he took Ellie and I on a tour to the caller’s booth. When I thanked him before we left he said the next time we came for a visit to please give him notice, that there’s so much to see and experience at Fort Erie.

Having heard about the festivities that take place on Puss N Boots Cup Day, I thought this would be a great day to return and I let Jim know. He phoned to say he would be unable to attend but hoped we would enjoy our day.

“I’ve asked them to hold a table for you and your daughter. Have lunch on my tab,” he said before adding with a chuckle, “I’d rather you spent your money on the ponies.”

We were certainly off to a great start!

Knowing that volunteers were running a food drive for COPE, Fort Erie’s local food bank, we brought a few jars of pasta sauce and some rotini.

Next, we each made a donation to the Canadian Cancer Society and received a wristband. After the final race, this would give us access to the track so we could “Circle the Course.” Ellie loved adding a new, and very meaningful wristband to the growing collection of charitable and music-related ones she already has.

Then, we bought a slew of 50/50 tickets and we placed a few fun bets on the jockey foot race with proceeds going to COPE and offering us a chance to win some great prizes. Ellie is a runner and I asked her to make all the selections for the jockeys. “First,” she told me with a grin, “we have to place our ballots with all the girl jockeys and then the boys after that.”

After that we wandered over to one of my daughter’s favourite things about the day – the free pony rides. She was especially taken with “Leopold.”

Fort Erie Race Track: Leopold Photo J Bridle

We stood and chatted with owner Sue for a few minutes while she talked about her 28-year old pony ride business. She told us they still have their first pony who is well over 30 now!

With our racing program we headed up to the restaurant for a bite to eat and to do some handicapping. I confess to being not much good at selecting horses but Ellie is a bit of a whiz. As a kid and therefore a sponge for info and new experiences, which she brings to handicapping, she also has horse experience. More, she has learned a lot about handicapping from a horse racing game she sometimes plays on my phone. No real money or actual betting takes place of course but it teaches handicapping in a simplified way so that as a beginner you can grow to understand things like jockey weight, past performances, etc. and how these can play a role in race outcomes.

The great view over the track From Fort Erie’s Turfside Bar & GrillWe really enjoyed Fort Erie’s Turfside Bar & Grill. Thanks to Jim Thibert, we had a great view!

All the restaurant and betting counter staff were very friendly and helpful. Lunch was great and by race 4 we were up $22!!

Ellie informed me that there was yet another "awesome reason to love Fort Erie":

Fort Erie’s Turfside Hot Fudge Sundae

Following lunch we left the restaurant and headed outside. We made sure to stand in line for Canada’s own Jockey Sandy Hawley, who was there to sign autographs and later to act as the starter for the jockey foot race.

Fort Erie Race Track: Sandy Hawley signing autographs on August 31st 2014

The man in line in front of us brought an original 1973 Queen’s Plate program for Sandy to sign!

The horse racing highlight of the day was watching Johnny La Rue go three for three and win the Puss N Boots Cup. The race is named in honour of Puss N Boots who veered off the track in 1961, sending his jockey flying, and jumped into an infield lake in front of more than 14,000 fans. Following a trainer’s boast in 1996, the Puss N Boots Cup became an annual tradition of racing and fun that includes watching the winning jockey and trainer take a dip in the lake. This year it was great fun to watch the very game Jockey Erika Smilovsky and Assistant Trainer Lisa Caddeau take the plunge.

Once the racing was over, Ellie figured out that we had pretty much broke even on our $2 bets so we happily set off with several hundred people to walk the track. The opportunity to “Circle the Course” takes place once a year and allows everyone a chance to walk the full track. Ellie is on her school’s cross country team and tried a few steps of running on the surprisingly soft and unique-in-Ontario “dirt” surface. What an experience!

“It’s so much bigger than I thought,” she said, slowing down to walk beside me.

Fort Erie Race Track: Circling the Course for Cancer research, August 31st 2014

I agreed. “And so much wider. Such a different view of everything.”

“This is so cool,” she continued. “Seeing the races how the horses see them. And seeing how long it takes to walk around, makes you realize just how fast the horses go.”

To finish our perfect day at the races, we drove home via what Sir Winston Churchill called "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world."

Rest stop view along the Niagara Parkway, the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world

A couple of days later, Jim and I caught up by phone and I was able to thank him. Our great day wouldn’t have been the same without his thoughtfulness and generosity.

“Ellie told me she loves Fort Erie,” I said. “When I asked her why she said, “It’s homey.”

I knew exactly what she meant. And, so did Jim.

“That’s because it’s all about family. We may not be fancy but we want you to feel like we do, like we’re all family.”

In these words, Jim captured the essence of Fort Erie.  It’s why my family and thousands of other families will keep going to this track: we get to enjoy an authentic family experience and get close to horses who, in their majesty, speed, and athleticism, always amaze while also reminding us of our rural heritage.

It’s also the reason Premier Kathleen Wynne made sure that the only rural Thoroughbred race track in the province survived following the transition from the Slots at Racetracks Program.

We at Racing Future believe Jim Thibert should be celebrated and emulated.  Without being negative or cynical, he welcomes everyone and understands that without fans, horse racing will not thrive as the great sport that it is.

***

Jim Thibert, CEO, Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium Rick Cowan, Chief Operating Officer, Fort Erie Race Track Tom Valiquette, Chief Financial Officer, Fort Erie Race Track  Elissa Blowe, Media and Communications, Fort Erie Race Track Mike Dimoff, Track Announcer, Fort Erie Race Track

 

 

 

 

 The Fort Erie Team: Jim Thibert, Rick Cowan, Tom Valiquette, Elissa Blowe, Mike Dimoff

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By Jenny Bridle

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