By Jim Freer
One sure bet in southeast Florida is that there probably will not be a fast and pleasant settlement of the dispute between Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course over December racing dates.
During the Jan. 22-23 weekend, officials of the two tracks didn’t even seem in agreement about what has been discussed beyond initial phone calls made by officials of Gulfstream’s parent, MI Developments (MID), to Calder’s parent, Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI).
Since 2002, Calder has been the only Miami-area Thoroughbred track to race in December. That is the month when many trainers, jockeys, horses, part-year residents, and tourists begin arriving from northern states.
But in its initial date filing with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, Gulfstream Dec. 31 said it plans to hold races during the entire month of December 2011.
On Jan. 6, Calder submitted a filing in which it said it plans to race every Friday through Sunday from July 1, 2011 until June 30, 2012. That would have it running head-to-head with Gulfstream from early January through mid April. Gulfstream, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., is eight miles east of Calder in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Since 2002, Florida Thoroughbred tracks have picked their own racing dates--basically with rubber-stamp approval from the Florida DPMW.
Calder and Gulfstream have until Feb. 28 to send the Florida DPMW their final race date filings for the 12 months beginning July 1, 2011. Tim Ritvo, MID’s vice president for East Coast racing operations, said Jan. 22, “There are ongoing talks at the highest levels of the parent companies” about the dates dispute.
Ritvo declined to talk about details. But he previously told The Blood-Horse that Gulfstream would consider what it calls “realignments,” possibly including a swap in which Gulfstream would take several weeks in late December and Calder would take several mid-April weeks Gulfstream has raced in recent years.
In a statement to The Blood-Horse Jan. 21, John Marshall, Calder vice president and general manager for racing, said: “There have been no date discussions. They spoke with their dates filing. We answered with ours. We are preparing to run the dates we filed.”
In its preliminary filing, Gulfstream said it plans to run from Dec. 2, 2011 until April 8, 2012. That plan had been widely expected because Frank Stronach, chairman of MID and of Gulfstream, has said numerous times that he wants Gulfstream to expand its racing season.
Several owners and trainers expect Calder and Gulfstream will not resolve the dates dispute until shortly before Feb. 28.
In a letter it sent the week of Jan. 17 to horsemen and other “members of the Florida Thoroughbred Racing Community,” Calder management mentioned the track’s “traditional racing dates” and said: “We at Calder do not seek a conflict (with Gulfstream), but we also are protective of these racing dates and will do what is right for our business and for the industry. Please do not rely on rumors or gossip regarding this subject; our offices are always open and we welcome you to come in with any questions or concerns you may have.”
Separately, Calder has scheduled a general horsemen's meeting Feb. 15., with topics that it said “will include the 2011/2012 live racing schedule, new spring stall application guidelines, new stabling rules, and upcoming stable area improvements.”
Along with mutuel clerks and other employees who work at both tracks, horsemen are fervent in their hopes that the two tracks will not race head-to-head. In addition to competition for attendance and on-track and other handles, there are questions about whether there would be enough horses to fill races.
Fred Brei, co-owner of Jacks or Better Farms in Ocala, is among horsemen who expect that vans that carry horses from one track to the other to race might not be allowed back in the track where those horses are stabled.
Brei is president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. He said he and other Florida TBOA officials have not talked with officials of Calder and Gulfstream about the dates dispute.
“We do not have a direct standing on race dates,” he said. “But if this (dispute) keeps going on, we would be ready to sit down and talk to try to help settle it.”
The early January opening of Gulfstream always draws attention in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area and strong early attendance. With its national simulcast fan base, Gulfstream’s handle in January is traditionally higher than Calder’s handle in December.
Calder has traditionally been known for its strong December stakes schedule. But amid the industry’s problems it has reduced that schedule since 2008. However, Marshall has pointed out that December has remained one of Calder’s strongest months in its eight-month season.
Some observers have raised the prospect that CDI might swap part of Calder’s December racing to Gulfstream in return for a higher share of handle on betting at Calder throughout Gulfstream’s meet.
Several Calder-based trainers, who asked not to be named, cited Gufstream’s early January strength as a reason why they think the tracks should consider at least a partial change in the December schedule.
Among other trainers, Eddie Plesa, Jr. said he is not taking sides between Calder and Gulfstream. But he said: “I expect they would look at the situation and schedule December dates at whichever one would be best for the horsemen and for the state.”
Plesa has horses year-round at Calder and at Monmouth Park during its meet and also is a regular at Gulfstream.
Wesley Ward, who trains around the country, said he favors a shift of all or part of December to Gulfstream. “I live in South Florida, and I like racing at Calder,” he said on Jan. 23 in Gulfstream’s walking ring. “But look at what it is like there (in December) and what its like here,” Ward said, pointing to fans crowded around the ring and to the adjacent Village at Gulfstream Park shopping mall.
“I don’t know how many people are walking from the mall to the track,“ he said. “But it’s another reason people come to Gulfstream and one of the few things we see that can help attract new fans for racing.”
MID and Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises are the joint venture owners of The Village at Gulfstream Park, which opened last year. “By December, the trainers are down here at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows,” Ward said. “A lot of people are already down for the winter, and some of them live near here (Gulfstream) and come here.”
Sam Gordon, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said he expects it will be late February before the two tracks reach any agreement that would prevent head-to-head racing. “They will have to come to their senses because everyone knows that if they run against each other it would hurt them both financially and hurt the Florida racing industry,” he said.
The last time two southeast Florida tracks raced head-to-head was in late 1989, with Hialeah Park and Calder both running. Hialeah called off its meet after several weeks. Now, there is a prospect that three tracks could be racing Thoroughbreds in that market late this year.
Hialeah has not had a Thoroughbred permit since 2003. But under its Quarter Horse permit it can hold a mixed meet with up to half its races as Thoroughbred races. Several times late last year, Hialeah chairman John Brunetti said he expected to run a mixed meet from November 2011 through early 2012.
“I have decided to hold off on any definite plans for a mixed meet until I see what happens with this dispute between the other two,” he said Jan. 21.
Hialeah ended its second Quarter Horse meet Jan. 23, thus remaining eligible to build a casino. It plans to renovate the north side of its grandstand, starting next month, for a casino that Brunetti said could open late this year.
He said Hialeah is proceeding with that plan even though Calder, Magic City Casino, and Miami Jai-Alai have filed a lawsuit in a state court, maintaining that a state law that authorizes a Hialeah casino is illegal under Florida’s constitution.