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Jim Thibert: Looking through an optimistic lens

It was a picture-perfect moment, literally, the day Fort Erie Racetrack CEO and Ontario Racing board member Jim Thibert fell in love with horse racing.
“I can tell you how it happened with me,” started Thibert. “About 18 years ago I was working in economic development and I had to go to an early meeting in Toronto. At about 5:30 in the morning, I was driving out of Fort Erie and I went past the racetrack. It was a spring morning and the sun was coming up. I was watching the horsepeople take the horses across the road and into the sand ring area, sun rising, mist coming up off the road”
For the self-described “amateur / semi-professional photographer,” it was a series of perfect scenes to capture on camera.
“This was a masterpiece photograph in front of my eyes,” recalled Thibert. “I fell in love with the Thoroughbreds right then and there.”
Little did he know he’d have a front-row seat to view many more of those times nine years later through a front-office role at one of Canada’s most historic racetracks.
“At the time, I had nothing to do with racing,” recalled Thibert. “When the previous owners decided to close the track down, I said, ‘No. That’s not what we do.’ I asked them to give me a shot to keep it open and they agreed. That’s how we formed Fort Erie Live Racing and how I became CEO.”
Fast-forward to current day and life at the border oval, after enduring several highs and lows in the past 10 years, is, pun intended, on the right track (April 20 marks the first day of training in 2019 and May 28 Opening Day).
For the man at the helm of the corporation, it’s been an interesting and deeply rewarding road travelled.
Last May’s signing of an historic long-term funding deal, a 19-year agreement with the Ontario Government that will allot $105 million annually to horse racing industry stakeholders, along with the recently announced enriched HIP Program, worth $10 million annually, all adds up to a promising future for Fort Erie and racetracks across the province.
“We’re doing very well in 2019,” noted Thibert, speaking specifically of Fort Erie. “The additional dollars from the province into Ontario Racing over the past two years has been tremendous. This year, we have $1.5 million coming in for capital improvements. We’re swapping over to HD broadcasting, we’re repairing the roof on the clubhouse, we’re putting up a new electronic infield tote board – it’s a big improvement for the customer experience. We are re-fitting our Turfside restaurant, along with improvements in the backstretch and environmental upgrades.”

One of Thibert's works  

And as Thibert offered, “what a difference a day can make.”
“The big deal for us was switching from a 1 p.m. post time to a 4:20 p.m. post time on Tuesdays. That’s turned out to be a phenomenal success. We had this idea, but we didn’t have a firm understanding that the business community would be able to respond so well. Tuesday has opened a lot of doors for us. It was a great move. We’re very proud of it. We took the Prince of Wales (second jewel in the Canadian Triple Crown Series, set for July 23 this year) off the Sunday and put it on a Tuesday. That’s been great for us.”
So, too, has been having a voice on the Ontario Racing board of directors.
Thibert, who represents Fort Erie Racetrack, is pleased with how the board is functioning.
“I think right now the relationships between the board members are really good,” he offered. “I think we had a good legacy. (Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO) Jim Lawson was a really good Chair. I think he did an excellent job. He established the approach for the board, which was to listen to people’s positions, hear what they have to say, debate it a bit and then go for a vote.
“That’s carried through to our new Chair, John Hayes. He’s doing a great job as well. So, too, has Katherine (Ontario Racing Management Executive Director, Curry), who has put in a lot of work in seeing Ontario Racing succeed.”
The same can also be said of Thibert’s contributions to Fort Erie.
“When we took over the operation, the fans, the staff and the horsepeople… we all became a big family,” he said. “It’s particularly neat because of the size and the design of the venue in Fort Erie is really close. It really is a family-oriented place.”
It’s also a place that will showcase significant upgrades, projects that are well underway ahead of the start of the live racing season on May 28.
Thibert can’t wait. 

 Michael Burns photo

“We’re looking to support are horsepeople and breeders… we’re increasing our purses by about 20 per cent. All of the news the past two years, the funding agreement and enriched HIP, it’s all very good news for the industry, period.
“With the enriched HIP, on it’s own, it’s welcome news for breeders. I think the really important part is the tools it provides Ontario Racing for increasing purses, cutting extraneous costs, coordinating marketing and creating some efficiencies. This is all welcome news.”
And something that acts as a welcome reminder of Thibert’s decision to join the Ontario horse racing ranks.
“I didn’t have a background in horse racing, but after eight or nine years, I understand it inside and out. It was a steep learning curve, and I have had great mentors with many years racing management experience such as Rick Cowan, Tom Valiquette, Sue Leslie, and steadfast support from the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium Board of Directors. It’s something I’m glad I took on.”

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