When the wind blew, the crisp, rallying strains of a lone bugler whistled along the backstretch of Fort Erie Race Track and could sometimes be heard all over town.
The “call to post” for a thoroughbred horse race drifted across closed factories and a crumbling downtown, all the way to the Niagara River.
For 115 years, the trumpet comforted the quiet folk of this border town, guaranteeing jobs and putting them on the map as the site of Canada’s oldest racetrack.
On Monday afternoon, the trumpet fell silent as live racing at the track closed for perhaps the final time, hopefully not taking a decaying town down with it.
Reinhold Nagel made the last call with his silver Schilke bugle, as he has for the past 51 years to herald horses to each race.
Tuesday was supposed to be the final day, but winds, rain and the threat of Hurricane Sandy cancelled the racing card — ironic, since the greatest jockey at Fort Erie was Sandy Hawley.
The track was the heart of the town, according to Nagel, his voice cracking with emotion.
“It’s Fort Erie’s longest employer and gives us an identity,” he says. “We have the track and we have the Old Fort.”
The site, which includes off-track betting, will close Dec. 31 unless an investor rides up on a stallion to save the day.
Nagel grew up in Fort Erie wanting to become a lawyer, but as a 15-year-old in 1961, he took a part-time job at the track for $15 a day, blowing his bugle while riding a horse named Count Thorn.
He provided the fanfare for racing legends such as Hawley and jockey Ron Turcotte, who guided Windfield Farms superstar Northern Dancer to its first victory in 1963 before going on to win the 1964 Kentucky Derby and becoming one of the most successful sires in history.
Then there was that sweltering day in 1961 when Puss N Boots rallied from last place into the lead, then couldn’t take the heat in the stretch and leaped into the infield pond to cool off, leaving 14,000 fans aghast.
Nagel recalls breeder E.P. Taylor, who developed the Canadian Triple Crown in 1959, as “a tall, very friendly man with a flower in his lapel. He spoke of elegance, but never gave you the impression he was a heavy hitter. It was the sport of kings then, the glory days of racing.”
Mostly, though, Nagel fondly remembers everyday folks like Bob Foster, a jockey’s room valet and trainer; Buffalo bettor Joe Corey, who used to heckle him while he was bugling and now has become his friend; and former track superintendent Gene Muma.
“Mr. Muma was awesome,” Nagel sighs. “In the ’60s and ’70s, it was drop-dead beautiful, the nicest track in North America. It had the three ponds and an infield with all that foliage and red flowers. It was a garden. It needs a lot of fixing up, but it’s still not bad.”
In recent years, many American fans have gone home as the Canadian dollar strengthened and crowds have dwindled, leaving the track with only three racing days a week. The final blow came earlier this year when the provincial government decided to shut down its racetrack slots program, a significant source of revenue for the Fort Erie facility.
The track’s demise, resulting in 240 jobs lost, is the latest in a long series of losses for the town of 30,000. Since the 1960s, eight factories and seven hotels have closed or burned down. In the past few years, it has lost its slots, its hospital emergency ward and a pharmaceutical firm. Next year, two schools will close.
Fort Erie’s future could hinge on the Canadian Motor Speedway, a proposed $400 million, 65,000-seat venue off the Queen Elizabeth Way, if it receives the green light from a provincial planning board.
Many of Nagel’s friends have left town, but he remains a sociology teacher in his full-time job at his alma mater, Fort Erie Secondary School. From now on, his trumpet playing will be limited to taverns and festivals.
“The writing’s on the wall, unless someone of influence comes forward (to save the track),” Nagel says. “Some people see us as a small hick track. We’re not Toronto. It’s more grassroots feel here, like a country fair . . . a family. You can bet as little as 20 cents on a race.”
Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin and Jim Thibert, CEO of the Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium, are hoping a foreign investor will come to the track’s rescue and make racing in 2013 a possibility. Thibert says crowds and revenues have actually increased in the past three years.
Only about 250 fans showed up under stormy skies on Monday to hear Nagel start his “call to post” for the final race, then break into a teary “Auld Lang Syne.”