Tom Valiquette certainly knew about horse racing when he was a kid. But, it was an on-track moment, not as a fan, but as an applicant, that sealed his love for the sport.
Although his introduction to horse racing began during his teenage years, it wasn’t until much later, with résumé in hand, when Valiquette truly realized his passion for the Sport of Kings.
“My grandfather always had a racing form with him and my mother and I would never miss a major race on TV,” he recalled. “I didn’t become a big fan until I interviewed for a position with the Ontario Jockey Club. During the interview, I watched a few live races and saw the breadth and complexities of the business. I was hooked right there. I became a full-fledged fan on the day of my interview in 1992.”
Nearly 25 years later, Valiquette’s affinity for racing hasn’t waned in the least.
Currently, he handles the reins of chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium.
It’s a jack-of-all-trades career, but Valiquette relishes the opportunity to see the sport through such a unique lens.
“Although I started on the financial side of the business, I had the good fortune to work closely with Rick Cowan, our previous COO, which left me well prepared for the additional operational issues I’m now responsible for,” he said. “My responsibilities are far ranging, from industry and government relations, to financial, personnel and operation management, to serving at the stands when help is needed on a busy day.”
Wearing so many hats can also be challenging at times. Even so, Valiquette isn’t fazed by what he contends with throughout the racing season at the border oval.
“The biggest challenge, clearly, is allocating the limited financial resources that we have at the track,” he said. “With a substantially fixed source of funds, we have to try to improve the finances to our hard-working horsepeople, hire and retain our employee base, take care of an aging and historic racetrack, and ensure our customers feel they are treated well and get a good bang for their buck.”
Delivering a top-notch customer experience is something Valiquette reminds himself of daily, but especially on opening day each year.
“Fort Erie really brings a closeness to the horse in a beautiful setting,” he said. “While much of wagering on horse racing now involves watching a computer or TV screen, the customers at Fort Erie are always near the horses. The majority of our customers follow the horses from the paddock to the walking ring to the track. It’s a beautiful venue and we have much of our amenities, such as trackside Tiki Bar, BBQ stands, mutuels and beverage outlets, located outside to ensure our customers can enjoy the attractiveness of the track and that closeness to the horses.”
The track’s signature event is the running of the Prince of Wales Stakes, second jewel in Canada’s Triple Crown. The 81st edition of the race is set to take place on July 26.
“Every year, I’m always amazed by how we can more than double the size of our crowd on Prince of Wales day and provide a great experience for everyone,” said Valiquette. “We have a dedicated team here in Fort Erie, and their hard work is evident through the increase in wagering and attendance that we saw last year.”
It’s on Prince of Wales day that Valiquette’s mind drifts back to 24 years ago, to the moment his love affair with horse racing began.
“You take a lot of pride in watching what our small team and dedicated horsepeople can do to produce such a good racing product day in and day out. That always makes me very satisfied.”
When he’s not at the races, Valiquette often finds himself at the baseball diamond.
“Outside of my job, I’m very active in youth baseball, including coaching and working on the executive of our baseball association.”