MIAMI, May 10, 2013--The imminent head-to-head conflict between Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course figured to turn ugly and it did, sooner than many expected.
Calder horsemen fired a shot across the bow of the Churchill Downs-owned track at the end of April. Their racing contract and a temporary extension with Calder having expired, the Florida HBPA withdrew permission for Calder to export its simulcast signal out of state.
(A veto right over where a simulcast signal can be transmitted and received was given horsemen when simulcasting across state lines was first approved. In my opinion, it needs to be revisited, since it has turned into what amounts to a tool of extortion. Perhaps mandatory arbitration would be an alternative.)
The anticipated result materialized. Calder all sources handle plunged more than 50%.
The trackâ€™s response also could have been anticipated. Since purses are a product of handle, Calder general manager John Marshall announced a 20% reduction.
The major hangup was the FHBPAâ€™s insistence that a new contract allow horsemen to ship a horse to race at another track (Gulfstream is the only one within a thousand miles in the summer) and come back to his stall at Calder.
Marshall has been adamant this is not going to happen. Who can blame him? It costs a fortune to maintain a stable area the size of Calderâ€™s--even one whose condition has drawn significant criticism. Horsemen pay no rent during the live racing season. Permitting a horse, which it is paying to house, to race at Gulfstream, which is trying to put Calder out of business, would be like an army allowing the enemyâ€™s troops to sleep in its barracks.
Horsemen have a reasonable counter-argument. With Calder planning to run only three days a week (Friday through Sunday) and almost certainly carding fewer races each day, it will be difficult to find starts. Gulfstreamâ€™s Saturday-Sunday agenda of about 16 races per weekend will create additional opportunities.
The horsemen also are armed with precedent. They have always been allowed to ship back and forth.
Gulfstream turned up the heat by promising to allow horses on its grounds to race at Calder without penalty.
Nevertheless, the local horsemen have to know that under the circumstances Calder isnâ€™t going to relent on such a crucial point. So why force the issue at the risk of substantial financial loss two months sooner than necessary?
One theory is Florida horsemen thought they could use the Kentucky Derby simulcast as a hostage.
In the past, horsemenâ€™s organizations have tended to support each other by denying permission to have their races sent into a state where local horsemen are not letting their signal out. Florida horsemen might have been hoping that their Kentucky brethren would give them leverage by refusing to let Calder take the Derby signal.
For whatever reasons, including a contract Churchill Downs has with its horsemen to inoculate the Derby from this kind of action, the Calder blackout didnâ€™t happen.
This theory gained credibility on May 9. Five days after Calder conducted business as usual on Derby Day, the FHBPA and Calder announced a new interim agreement had been achieved. The provisions in effect at the start of the season would be extended through the end of May. Calder immediately rescinded the 20% cutback.
In jargon currently in vogue in Washington, the two sides kicked the can down the road. Come June, there will be a clearer picture of where the situation stands. Could the Belmont Stakes simulcast, with the possibility of Orb bidding for a Triple Crown, be the new target? A lot of New York horsemen work side by side each winter with the Florida regulars.
In the midst of the dispute, Gulfstream announced that it had gained approval from the state to reopen for one day, June 25. Calder says it will appeal the ruling. This might seem like much ado about very little, a normally dark Tuesday. However, there are bigger stakes.
By making June 25 a part of the season that ended April 5, then re-opening July 1 (the day the new fiscal year starts in Florida) Gulfstream gained the right to be considered a host track for simulcasting year-round. Instead of having to buy simulcast signals from Calder from April through November, Gulfstream can negotiate directly with senders, then remarket the signals to other Florida pari-mutuels in competition with Calder. (Tampa Bay Downs is using the same tactics on June 30-July 1 to qualify as a year-round host.)
The ability to control lucrative simulcast signals is as much a factor in Gulfstreamâ€™s decision to race year-round as the attempt to buck up the struggling mall adjoining the track.
By all indications, Gulfstream is past the point of turning back. Head strong Frank Stronach seems determined to make his track a year-round operation, even if it means financial losses for an extended period.
Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo says more than a million dollars has been invested in building a new drainage system and a more sand based racing surface to deal with the biblical summer rains in South Florida. A new team in the racing office has been assembled. Gate crews have been hired. Snowbird trainers, who normally leave town with the end of the traditional Gulfstream season, have been cajoled into leaving behind some racing-ready stock.
Deteriorating relationships between Churchill Downs and Calder horsemen has a significant number of the latter just waiting for a cue that Gulfstream is a certain go to make a permanent change in their base of operations. Moreover, Ritvo was formerly one of them, a Calder-based trainer. They have a comfort and trust level with him.
This suggests that a financial settlement to Churchill Downs is the most viable avenue toward preventing the looming head-to-head showdown. Bottom-line oriented Churchill Downs Inc. was amenable to this a couple of years ago when Gulfstream made its incursion into December. It appears the only thing standing in the way this time is Stronach coming up with the right number.
Calder would still have to race 80 days annually to preserve its right to operate a casino, the company's priority. This could be readily accomplished by racing two or three weekdays during the months Gulfstream is not conducting its prime winter meet.
Marshall and Ritvo acknowledge that conversations above their pay grades are ongoing toward a settlement. Anyone with concern for Florida racing has to hope these talks will be fruitful.