Francine Villeneuve wanted to come home - for a lot of reasons.
The diminutive Villeneuve spent the past three summer seasons jockeying horses in Florida.
But, her heart was in Fort Erie.
So when it was announced in late December that Fort Erie Race Track would be taken over by the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, a move that secured the future for the 113-year-old thoroughbred racing track, Villeneuve decided to come home to her native Southern Ontario.
Villeneuve is more than just a jockey, she has 934 wins to her credit, making her the winningest female jockey in Canada's history. One of her goals, besides returning to the region, was to get win No. 1000 at Fort Erie.
The new ownership deal gives her that chance.
"I remember the days around here when everyone was glum and worried," said Villeneuve, who stands five-foot tall and even with her riding helmet on barely reaches the withers of a 15-hand tall thoroughbred. "Now, everyone is optimistic and upbeat. You can feel it in the air."
Villeneuve is one of approximately 2,000 people who make their living off of the track, which is one of Fort Erie's major economic engines and calling cards. The track has a projected $200 million economic impact on the border Canadian border town.
The new ownership deal ends years of uncertainty about the track, which drove jockeys, trainers and customers away from the historic venue. Fort Erie begins its 78-date, live racing season on May 1 surrounded by a sense of optimism and hope.
The track's last owner, Nordic Gaming Corp., lost more than $20 million in the past few seasons.
"There's just too much history here," said Marilyn McMullen, who is training 22 horses at the track.
Feel-good optimism aside, there remain other factors that impact the track. The 4,000-seat grandstand averages about 1,500 customers - a number that has dropped from 3,000 in recent years not only because of the well-publicized ownership issues but also weakened economies in Canada and the U.S. that cut into discretionary income spending, concerns about border crossings and competition from other gaming venues.
"We've still got a lot of hurdles to overcome," admitted Nick Gonzalez, Ontario Horse Benevolent Protection Agency vice president. "But, the difference now is we've got a lot of reasons to go forward and a lot more confidence about the (track's) future."
Just days before the first live race, more than 700 thoroughbreds are stabled at the track's massive campus. Even in the early morning hours, there is a beehive of activity jockeys warming up the horses, stable hands unloading bales of hay and farriers putting new shoes on the animals.
"It feels refreshing," Gonzalez said. "It's like a new beginning around here. You can see why people once referred to the track as the 'Saratoga of the North'."
The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium is not relying on the track's history to bring back top jockeys and horses. Jockeys are guaranteed $100,000 purses for each live racing day.
Also under consideration is bringing quarter horse races to the track. Only a track in Ajax, Ont., offers live quarter horse races. It would mark the first time quarter horse races were held at Fort Erie, a move that could add more live dates and extend its season.
The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium is backed the Fort Erie Economic Development & Tourism Corp., the Town of Fort Erie and the Ontario Horse Benevolent Protection Agency. The track's $25 million annual operating budget is being under written by several factors including a guaranteed pot of at least $5.6 million payment from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.
The varied support for the track goes a long way, Gonzalez said.
"To lose this track would have been an economic catastrophe for Fort Erie and the region," he said. "I can't even begin to fathom this track ceasing to exist. It is so tied into the town's history. It would have been really sad to see it close, but we don't have to think about that now."