MIAMI, Oct. 18, 2013â€”The Calder-Gulfstream feud promised to get progressively uglier and it hasnâ€™t disappointed. Now fans have become collateral damage.
The latest tit-for-tat came Oct. 12. Fans arriving at Calder for the Festival of the Sun program discovered they wouldnâ€™t be allowed to wager on cross-town Gulfstream or any of the other simulcast signals under the control of The Stronach Group. This included Santa Anita, the prime reason to hang around after live racing, as well as Laurel, Monmouth and some lesser tracks.
Fans werenâ€™t the only ones caught off guard. â€śNobody sent a letter, e-mail or a phone call that we were not getting this content,â€ť Calder general manager John Marshall said. Calder didnâ€™t become aware of the blackout until it began to program its TV monitors and wagering system, according to Marshall. â€śTote informed us that we were unable to wager on this list of race tracks.â€ť
No communication was necessary for the Calder executive to deduce Gulfstreamâ€™s motivation. A week previously, Calder began supplying Mardi Gras Casino (nee Hollywood Greyhound Track) with its roster of racing signals. Mardi Gras is only a traffic light up the road from Gulfstream.
â€śGulfstream disapproved of Calder sending content to Mardi Gras,â€ť Marshall said. â€śTo express that disapproval in a punitive nature, they decided to withhold content from Calder.â€ť Gulfstream picked a juicy spot, Calderâ€™s biggest day of the fall.
Calderâ€™s accommodation of Mardi Gras canâ€™t be for the money. It has to be negligible, since the dog track previously hasnâ€™t been allowed to offer thoroughbred racing until 6 p.m. and hasnâ€™t done much, if anything, to make the public aware of the new opportunity to bet thoroughbreds in the afternoon. Besides, anyone who wants to bet horses can just drive a mile down the road and do it under better circumstances at Gulfstream.
This was an in-your-face move by Calder, smarting that Gulfstream provides its thoroughbred signals to Hialeah Park and Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track).
The people most inconvenienced and ticked off were fans, especially those who had done some homework and formed opinions on the blacked out tracks. Itâ€™s a shorter price than Cluster of Stars will be in Saturdayâ€™s Iroquois Stakes that Gulfstream fans will endure the same blackout out of the blue of Churchill Downs signals in the near future.
Marshall all but confirmed this. â€śWeâ€™re thinking about giving them notice and withholding the Churchill content.â€ť
Right now this wouldnâ€™t be much of a jolt to Gulfstream and its patrons. Calder is the only Churchill track of note running. But in a couple of weeks Churchill Downs opens its traditional fall meeting. Fair Grounds follows shortly thereafter. That worm will turn in December when Gulfstream and Santa Anita move to center stage of winter racing. Long term, itâ€™s advantage Churchill again for the biggest day of the year on the first Saturday in May. Hopefully, the war wonâ€™t continue to escalate to that point but these situations have a way of careening out of control. It would be in the interest of both tracks as well as the habitually overlooked fans to call off this tactic.
Fortunately, the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita isn't in play. Separate contracts cover those simulcasts.
Iâ€™ve never understood why both tracks donâ€™t give their signals to all the area dog tracks and jai alai frontons, especially since the introduction of racinos have brought about the elimination of admission and parking charges. Calder and Gulfstream have almost nothing to lose and at least something to gain.
Tracks get to keep a higher percentage of on-track wagering but more of nothing is nothing. Patrons at the other facilities are there because of convenience or some other reason that makes them unlikely live racing customers. Given the opportunity, they might bet a few bucks on the horses.
Then again you have to remember how many tracks dragged their heels on simulcasting, which became the backbone of the game. The same is true of lower minimum wagers, which also have proven to be a boon. If there is any industry other than horse racing more consistently unaware of the desires and needs of its customers, Iâ€™m not aware of it.
The latest Calder-Gulfstream contretemps is complicated by a serious faux pas by Calder. On Saturday, Oct. 5, the signals sent from Calder to Mardi Gras for the first time included Gulfstreamâ€™s live racing, a big no-no. Marshall acknowledged this. â€śThat was wrong. It was communicated to Gulfstream that this was done in error. It was corrected and will not happen again.â€ť
While apologetic over his trackâ€™s mistake, Marshall is militant in labeling Gulfstreamâ€™s back-at-you as a breach of contract. â€śWe have a contract between Churchill Downs Inc. and The Stronach Group. Itâ€™s very specific that you have to give 10 days notice of withdrawing signals. The Stronach Group hasnâ€™t given us any notice. Itâ€™s just more of Gulfstreamâ€™s behavior in thinking theyâ€™re not accountable to follow the rules, that they are above the rules, whether they are contractual or statutory.â€ť
Gulfstreamâ€™s president Tim Ritvo chose not to respond. However, a Gulfstream spokesman said more than the Mardi Gras incident provoked the blackout. Calder also is in arrears of payments owed to Gulfstream from simulcasting, he said.
Meanwhile Calder is pushing the state to rule in favor of its position that Gulfstreamâ€™s Saturday-Sunday agenda does not qualify as an authentic race meet while Calderâ€™s Friday-through-Sunday regimen does. â€śThere is reference to three days being a live race meet,â€ť Marshall said. â€śThere is no reference in the statute declaring two days a week as a live meet.â€ť
The definition of what constitutes a live meet is crucial to the dispute since it carries with it the lucrative right to be a hub for simulcasting throughout the state. Simulcast revenue is at the heart of this dispute. â€śThis continues to be a circus with simulcast revenues and who is eligible to receive them among Calder, Gulfstream and Tampa,â€ť Marshall said.
The law is vague and subject to liberal interpretation. Tampa Bay Downs ran programs on June 30, the final day of Floridaâ€™s fiscal year, and July 1, the start of the new year, and is claiming year-round simulcast rights even though its live season is December through the first week in May.
Marshall is hopeful new leadership at Floridaâ€™s Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering will see things Calderâ€™s way. Even if this happens, it could be a short-lived victory. Gulfstream has been talking about expanding to a third day of racing. If the statute is interpreted Calderâ€™s way, the extra day would probably be added as soon as it could be included in the condition book.
Then Calder and Gulfstream could find something else to bicker over.