by James Freer
After cutting its daily purses about 7% in early November, Calder Race Course quietly restored the money during the final weeks of its meet that ends Jan. 2. But questions concerning Calder and other South Florida tracks linger into the new year.
When it resumes racing in April, the South Florida racetrack also hopes to have some changes in the system it began in September of sending its simulcast signal to Gulfstream Park and the Isle Casino & Racing at Pompano Park, a harness track.
Calder president Ken Dunn said revenue the track is receiving from local simulcasts “is about what we expected, but not what we hoped for.”
Calder and other South Florida pari-mutuel facilities are dealing with those kinds of issues as they feel the impact of gas prices, a slumping housing market, and the prospect of even more competition with tribal casinos for gaming dollars.
Calder made its latest purse changes in mid-December. That followed several weeks when it ran more lower-purse claiming races than during the same period in 2006, Dunn said. Thus, Calder was not in a position similar to last year, when it overpaid purses for its Tropical meet, he said. That portion of Calder’s season runs from late October through early January.
“It is difficult to project ahead on what our class of races will be in any given week,” Dunn said. “We did not put out a press release (on raising purses) because we did not want to give a wrong impression” that handle was going up.
“We have been monitoring them, and they responded,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. In November, the Florida HBPA called the changes ill-timed.
“They have eaten into some of the overnight purses they thought they might incur,” Stirling said. “We are at a point where we could be overpaid a bit. This is a hard meeting to judge.”
In addition to raising overall purses, Calder brought purses for overnight stakes back to $50,000 from $35,000.
Overall for 2007, Calder’s “business trends remain at a level that are down from last year, and remain disappointing,” Dunn said. On Jan. 29, the track and others in Miami-Dade County will seek approval for slot machines in a local referendum.
Calder began sending its signal to the other two horse tracks in September after Florida’s Supreme Court overturned a state rule that prohibited Calder and Gulfstream from sending their signals to pari-mutuel outlets within 25 miles.
Calder is not releasing daily on-track and simulcast handle, and would not release details on its split with Gulfstream and Pompano. Gulfstream said it took in about $1.5 million in bets on Calder races between Sept. 22 and Dec. 12. Calder has a contract to take Gulfstream’s signal for its meet from Jan. 3-April 20.
“We would like to continue with this experiment” for the benefit of South Florida racing fans, Dunn said. But Calder’s first responsibility is to shareholders’ of parent Churchill Downs Inc., he said.
Calder had hoped to also send its signal to Flagler Dog Track in Miami. But the Florida HBPA did not approve sending the signal to a non-horse track.
“The dogs have been our enemies for years,” Stirling said. “The state’s rules and regulations are stacked pro-dog and pro-jai alai.”
Simulcasting to Flagler would have put Calder in a market “further south” with less overlap than the other two tracks, said Dunn, who hopes the tracks and horsemen’s group will find ways to bring in Flagler and other pari-mutuel facilities while also considering larger revenue splits for host tracks.
In 2006-07, Calder’s 60-day Tropical meet had average daily on-track handle of $362,211 and attendance of 3,843. Dunn said daily figures began falling early this summer during the Calder meet. Calder believes that stems from a combination of expanded limits for poker games at Florida pari-mutuel outlets, gas prices, and concerns about housing prices in South Florida, Dunn said.
Calder does not have a card room. It plans to add one if Miami-Dade County voters approve the Jan. 29 ballot issue that would allow slot machines at Calder and the county’s two other pari-mutuels—Flagler Dog Track and Miami Jai-Alai.
Calder and others are waiting for the state’s government and courts to determine the tax rate and other terms under which the state’s tribal casinos can upgrade from Class II to Class III slot machines. “We have no control over that,” Dunn said of the expected new competition. “Our focus is on Jan. 29.”