A controversial plan to shave live racing dates at Thistledown in 2008 could result in the halt of full-card simulcasts at the Cleveland-area racetrack in 2009.
Thistledown, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. but for sale, requested 111 dates for next year, below the number required for the Cleveland-area racetrack to offer full-card simulcasts in 2009. The Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association is seeking at least 136 dates next year.
The Ohio State Racing Commission approved the Thistledown request in October, but left the door open for more discussion at its Nov. 13 meeting. The Ohio HBPA and Thistledown didn't strike a deal, so the issue of dates never came up at the meeting.
As recently as 2005, Thistledown offered 187 days of racing. The track and horsemen’s group have been negotiating for months; Thistledown at first wanted 91 dates and the Ohio HBPA 144 days. Simulcasting could continue in 2009 if the track races 155 days next year, or 83% of the 2005 amount.
All seven Ohio tracks--three are Thoroughbred and four are Standardbred--agreed in 2006 to reduce dates for 2007 in an effort to spread purse money over fewer days. The plan was pushed by former OSRC member and chairman Norman Barron.
Horsemen noted that plan, however, was predicated on a “freeze” on the state’s common pool for dark-day simulcast revenue. All tracks in the state contribute to the fund, and purse revenue is distributed according to a formula that rewards tracks that offer more live racing dates.
The purse pool was agreed upon by the seven tracks and two horsemen’s groups when full-card simulcasts were legalized in 1996. Currently, a nine-party agreement is required for there to be any change in the simulcast law or statutory racing dates.
The purse pool has met with mixed reactions over the years. One Thoroughbred horseman suggested if Thistledown continues to reduce days, and the purse pool percentages aren’t frozen, there would be “a huge transfer of money from Thistledown to Northfield purses.”
Northfield Park, a harness track not far from Thistledown, races the most live dates in the state. It was approved for 207 dates in 2008.
Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler said Nov. 13 that for the last two years, all the tracks agreed to "retention dates," meaning they keep dark-day revenue for purses. This year, Thistledown kept revenue from 51 days; it raced 136 days, but the statutory requirement is 187.
The retention days aren't included in this year's proposed nine-party agreement.
"Retention days are a major issue," Basler said. "Based on handle this year from Jan. 1-Sept. 30, we would lose about $500,000 in purse money at Thistledown next year. The total loss (statewide) would be about $325,000 next year. We're looking for some revision, and we're willing to compromise. But we just can't give up $300,000 in purse money next year."
Daily average Thoroughbred purses in Ohio run from $45,000-$70,000 depending on the track. The figures are among the lowest in the Midwest.
If there is no deal, Thistledown will race 111 days in 2008, but in the absence of a nine-party agreement, there would be no simulcasts the following year.
Thistledown officials have said fewer dates are needed for the track to be profitable. However, the track hasn't shut the door on horsemen.
"We were awarded 111 dates, and at this time, that is what we plan to race next year," Thistledown general manager Brent Reitz said Nov. 13. "The economics of racing are that we need to race about that number of days to be profitable. However, we will continue to work with our horsemen in an effort to come up with a dates package that benefits both parties."
Northfield general manager Tom Aldrich said Nov. 13 the conflict is between Thistledown and the Ohio HBPA. He said the seven other parties signed off on the deal for 2008.
"We're baffled how all of sudden, it rests with us," Aldrich said in response to insinuations Northfield is a stumbling block. "In all this time, we haven't heard from (the Ohio HBPA) or Thistledown. We kept hearing we were going to get a call, but we didn't. Negotiations started in September, and there were multi-lateral talks. Northfield can't stand alone in negotiating."
Aldrich also said most of the harness tracks in Ohio wanted to race fewer dates than those authorized for 2008. (Northfield, he said, will race 10 fewer nights next year.) Fewer dates would have resulted in those tracks losing revenue from the common purse pool, he said.
There remains much conjecture about the future of Thistledown given the decision by MEC to sell it. A group of individuals, many of them horse owners, is interested in buying the track, according to several people involved in the plan.
Horsemen said it's critical the track not lose its right to simulcast in 2009.
"I don't think any interested buyer--and there are many--would buy it as a racetrack if it can't simulcast in 2009," Basler said.
Beulah Park near Columbus was approved for 120 days in 2008, while River Downs near Cincinnati was approved for 105 days. Both figures are above statutory requirements.
Handle at the seven Ohio tracks continues to slide. Through Nov. 3, on-site handle at the Thoroughbred tracks was down 10.6% from the same period in 2006, while handle at harness tracks was down 14.5%, according to figures provided by the OSRC.