Cognizant of negative dynamics hammering the racing scene in South Florida, leaders of the Thoroughbred industry harbored in the central part of the state are considering preemptive-strike plans to pursue a permit for pari-mutuel meets to be run in the Ocala area.
The proposal was one of several topics discussed Dec. 15 during a gathering of horsemen and industry officials at the offices of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association in Ocala.
FTBOA executive vice president Richard Hancock said legislation seeking a new Thoroughbred racing permit may be filed in time for the 2009 Florida legislative session, which will be held in March and April. Between turmoil evident this year at Calder Race Course – including revenue-sharing disputes, purse cuts, reduced racing days, and stakes eliminations – and financial concerns over the upcoming Gulfstream Park meet, Hancock says seeking a permit for Ocala makes a lot of sense.
In essence, Hancock feels having an Ocala-based permit would be a good idea from a “just-in-case” standpoint – just in case further reductions and/or continuing revenue standoffs are realized at Calder, and just in case Gulfstream, which is owned by financially-troubled Magna Entertainment Corp., at some point closes its doors.
“It’s not something that is going to solve the issues, but it would help us get rid of a lot of the fear in our industry,” said Hancock, who is an active lobbyist in legislative sessions, which are held in the state capital of Tallahassee.
Like Hancock, J. Michael O’Farrell, who is an FTBOA board director and chairman of Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., wants South Florida racing to continue and prosper. But if for some reason it doesn’t, they and other Ocala-area industry leaders want to have a back-up plan to support the local 500-plus breeding and training farms.
“Do we really want a race meet in Ocala? Yes and no; but mostly no,” said O’Farrell, who is also president of Ocala Stud. “But we may have to have one as a savior for our industry. And we don’t want to wait until it’s too late to start at working at getting the permit.
“We’d really like for Calder to run for more money, and have Gulstream have their problems solved and be more profitable, and race for more money there as well. But today, it doesn’t seem to be happening. We need to position ourselves so that in the future, we can try and save all of these people that have farms here in Ocala. They have to have a place to run their horses. If South Florida is not the place, we need to get in line.”
Hancock said the FTOBA has for the most part been “under the radar” as a constant observer of the ongoing fracas involving horsemen, Calder, and the track’s parent company, Churchill Downs Inc. But he said the time to be quiet is gone.
“It doesn’t make sense for Churchill Downs to come in and try and rule the world,” he said. “It seems they want to drive these horsemen out of business until they get everything they want.”
O’ Farrell agreed with Hancock’s critical assessment of CDI, saying the company has treated Calder like a “step-child,” and made decisions that have reverberated throughout the state.
“What happens in South Florida has a major impact on what happens in Ocala,” he said, calling the purse reductions and elimination of black-type races a “double hit” for owners. “They have no regard for our horsemen -- be they owners and trainers in South Florida, or be they farm owners and breeders here in Ocala.”
CDI officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Reportedly at the center of Calder racing woes is a months-long dispute on how revenue should be shared from advance deposit wagering entities, which process bets made through Internet, telephone, and mobile-device platforms. The Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association, which wants a larger percentage of such wagers, has withheld federally-authorized consent for the Calder signal to go out to ADWs and other betting outlets.
CDI, which claims the horsemen’s demands are economically infeasible, have countered with purse cuts, a reduction in certain racing days, and the elimination of about a dozen stakes from the Calder program -- all of which the company argues are needed in lieu of economic conditions compounded by the Florida HBPA's refusal to grant signal consent.
The most recent move by CDI, the axing of three graded stakes from the remainder of the Tropical Park at Calder meet, really “broke the bank” for Hancock.
“It was about as unfair as the Breeders’ Cup eliminating all of those other races,” he said, referencing a since-reversed decision to restore certain races to the 2009 schedule. “Both of their actions show that no one wants to move ahead and improve the situation. It seems they care about championship Breeders’ Cup races and the (Kentucky) Derby, and the hell with everyone else. I think that people are going to start being excited about what needs to be done.”
If Ocala ends up with a new pari-mutuel permit, any meet would likely start with a day or two of live racing, and be run under the umbrella of a non-profit organization, similar to those operating successful meets at Keeneland, Del Mar, and Oak Tree at Santa Anita Park. The first year would perhaps involve offering pari-mutuel wagering at the annual one day of stakes races held at OBS, and grow slowly from there.
Hancock said potential racing-related legislation is also under consideration for filing, including having a cap placed on host fees, similar to what is currently on the books in California. But he said his primary concern is to protect the members of his organization and the Florida breeding industry in general, which he said historically gets about a 1% slice of every dollar wagered on state races.
“It all depends on what deal ends up getting negotiated,” Hancock said. "But if Churchill Downs, or Calder or Gulfstream, thinks that this association is going to sit by and let them cut us out of what is potentially the biggest part of the market – wagering on the Internet – they are wrong. We’ve had success in Tallahassee, and we’ll be back there next year.”
Hancock also said if a live Ocala meet is ever developed, it would not compete with Tampa Bay Downs, which operates from mid-December through early May.