160-Plus Race Dates Lost in Ohio Carnage

160-Plus Race Dates Lost in Ohio Carnage
Photo: Christine A. Wittmer
River Downs

Winter racing at Beulah Park was plowed under and the spring/summer meet at River Downs went up in flames Nov. 21 when the Ohio State Racing Commission awarded 2009 dates that represent a loss of more than 160 days of Thoroughbred racing at the two tracks.

Combined with the schedule approved earlier for Thistledown, there will be roughly 200 fewer Thoroughbred dates in Ohio next year compared with this year. That could change, but racetrack officials apparently want Ohio horsemen to back away from an advance deposit wagering model sought by the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group.

Beulah Park, which normally kicks off the Ohio racing season in early January, applied for and was granted 60 days of five-days-per-week racing from Oct. 2-Dec. 23. The track also was granted 28 Quarter Horse dates—with racing six days a week—from April 1-May 3.

River Downs, which this year raced 102 days, applied for two Thoroughbred dates and 14 Quarter Horse dates. The racing commission approved the Quarter Horse meet but shot down the Thoroughbred request.

River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian, who met with track ownership in California the week of Nov. 16, told the OSRC he considered applying for 60 Thoroughbred dates but feared if the track didn’t race, he would be fined by the commission for each lost day. OSRC executive secretary Sam Zonak confirmed River Downs would be fined if it backed away from approved dates.

“I’m in a box,” Hanessian said. “The last few years have been very trying on the racing industry. We’ve had issues with horsemen.”

The Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a member of the national THG, pulled approvals May 1 for Beulah Park and River Downs to send their signals to ADW providers. Track officials said the subsequent loss of purse revenue led to their decisions to greatly curtail live racing.

Hanessian said the move cost River Downs about $320,000 in purse money. Beulah Park majority owner Charles Ruma said his track is in the same predicament.

“We would like to be back racing at our full schedule,” Ruma told the OSRC. “However, we still don’t have a deal on ADW revenue. It has amounted to a cut of about $460,000 in revenue, and that exacerbates an already bad situation.

“At this point in time, the horsemen’s demands are outrageous. They have killed racing at Beulah Park (during the current meet). They have been devious in their efforts. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Because of purse cuts, most races at Beulah Park, which races through Dec. 20, now go for $3,000-$4,000 pots. Ruma said off-track handle on races at the Grove City track was about $140 million in 2007, but is expected to drop to $100 million this year and is projected at $60 million to $70 million in 2009.

“At these levels, I can’t do business,” Ruma said. “Our purse levels aren’t good enough now to allow us to capably perform to have an honorable product. You’ve got the worst horses in the country here—and I mean the worst horses in the country.”

Ruma insists the conflict with the THG is responsible for the current situation. He said horsemen are holding out for a national deal on ADW revenue, but each state and racetrack have different circumstances. Ruma claimed because of a previous source-market fee model in the Columbus, Ohio, area, horsemen get 10% of ADW revenue, more than what’s sought by the THG.

Ohio horsemen’s representatives have disputed that claim.

“I don’t acknowledge the THG,” Ruma said. “I don’t have obligations to anyone except the horsemen at Beulah Park. We have the worst program, the worst horses, and horsemen are stealing from each other on the backside. It’s time for them to grow up. We’re saying we’re done (negotiating).”

Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler, when prompted by OSRC members, questioned Ruma’s figures but said he didn’t want to negotiate at the meeting. Basler said he would outline the horsemen’s position in writing.

Simmering animosity between Beulah Park and horsemen’s leadership then erupted in public. Ruma has expressed his displeasure with Basler and in particular Bob Reeves, a top THG official.

“I resent being called a liar,” Ruma said as he turned toward Basler. “He’s full of crap. If he has something to say, let him say it.”

Basler said he didn’t call Ruma a liar. “There were facts and figures I think are incorrect,” he said. “And I didn’t like being called full of crap at a public meeting.”

There are ramifications for Beulah Park and River Downs because their 2009 dates fall below a minimum set by state statute. Zonak said the tracks could lose their rights to offer full-card simulcasts in 2010, but Ruma said his lawyer told him that’s not the case.

After the meeting, Basler said horsemen at Beulah Park met Nov. 19 to discuss the immediate future. If Beulah doesn’t race in January, all horses must leave the grounds when live racing ends in late December.

“They expressed overwhelming support for our position,” Basler said. “We’re continuing to talk with representatives from Beulah Park. We’re hoping they request a spring Thoroughbred meet, not a Quarter Horse meet.”

When asked what would happen if Beulah Park does in fact not offer winter racing, Ruma said: “We’re shutting down one week after the meet is over. I’m not planning on making a deal with anybody right now. They just don’t get it.

“Bob Reeves and the whole THG group are killing racing and the fan base. The fans are going to (Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in neighboring West Virginia) to play poker, and they can bet New York racing all they want.”

As for River Downs holding a Thoroughbred meet of some sort in 2009, Hanessian said: “It’s up to the horsemen and the racing commission.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch for the schedules at the two tracks to change, though racing commissioner Tom Zaino said he doesn’t intend to vote again on racing dates after Dec. 31. He said tracks, horsemen, and the OSRC, which continues to fail to meet revenue projections, need a long-range plan.

Zonak said if the tracks and horsemen are able to strike a deal, even early next year, he would recommend commissioners allow the tracks to modify their schedules.

“The commission doesn’t have to (approve changes), but I would urge that they would,” Zonak said. “I don’t want to see any racetracks close.”

As it stands now, the first Thoroughbred racing in Ohio next year would be at Thistledown, which plans to race 91 days—about 30 fewer than this year—from April 30-Oct. 2. Thistledown general manager Brent Reitz said he doesn’t foresee moving up the opening date to accommodate horsemen given the uncertainty in the state.

“Right now, we’re probably sticking to that schedule,” Reitz said.

Since 1997, the first full year of full-card simulcasts in Ohio, handle has dropped from $600.7 million to $372 million in 2007. The high-water mark was 1998, when $628.7 million was wagered in the state. Handle this year is down about 12% in keeping with a trend that began earlier in the decade.

Total Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse purses went from $25.4 million in 2004 to $21.8 million in 2007.

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