Racing for Love, and in Spite of Woes, in OH

Racing for Love, and in Spite of Woes, in OH
Photo: John Englehardt / River Downs
Halmi, a 3-year-old gelding by Prized, won the $50,000 Green Carpet Stakes for state-breds May 30 at River Downs.

Laurie Hickman was asked why she still supports the Ohio breeding and racing program given its precarious position.

Perhaps it was bad timing for the query; the longtime Thoroughbred owner had just won her first stakes—with a homebred. Still, she has gotten pretty excited when one of her horses won a $5,000 claiming race.

Economics, and love of the game, keep her based in Ohio.

“It’s unbelievable—my first stakes win in Ohio,” Hickman said after Halmi, a 3-year-old gelding by Prized, won the $50,000 Green Carpet Stakes for state-breds May 30 at River Downs under Pablo Tolentino. “I can’t afford to race and still be competitive in Kentucky. I want to be a big fish in a small pond.”

The pond is slowly drying up. And with a Thoroughbred foal crop now at about 200 a year, so is the competition in Ohio. Steady declines in pari-mutuel handle—about 12% each year through most of this decade—could lead to a curtailed state-bred stakes program in the future.

Norm Barron, former chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission, is part owner of the 3-year-old Speightstown   colt Runningforspeight, who checked in fifth as the favorite in the Green Carpet. Barron still gets a kick out of Ohio racing, and indicated he has no plans to abandon it.

Barron, when on the OSRC, by law was unable to race horses in Ohio. But when he was replaced on the commission after serving under a Republican administration, he was back in the game—and that’s how Runningforspeight got his name.

Now, Barron isn’t running for spite; he’s racing in spite of the situation in Ohio.

“I’ve been in it all my life,” Barron said. “I love this sport. I want to do something for Ohio racing.”

Banking on legislative assistance

The Ohio legislature in June will hammer out a budget in the face of a growing revenue deficit. Whether a racing commission proposal for video lottery terminals at the state’s seven racetracks is included in the spending plan remains to be seen.

Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland repeatedly has said he’s against expanded gambling, though last year he authorized the Ohio Lottery to offer Keno at thousands of locations around the state. And the OSRC, made up of his appointees, presented the racetrack VLT plan to legislators.

“Assuming slots don’t come in, I think there will only be one Thoroughbred track and one Standardbred track in Ohio,” Barron said. “Purse-wise, we just can’t compete with other states. If Kentucky gets (racetrack gaming), that’s the death knell here. Personally, I don’t think we’ll get slots in Ohio this year. It’s a political football.”

In May, the horse industry staged a rally at the statehouse in Columbus that garnered an unusual amount of media attention. Some industry officials, including River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian, believe there’s not much more that can be done after years of lobbying legislators.

“I think we’ve gotten our message across to the politicians—it’s in their hands now,” Hanessian said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll quit pushing for it. But we’re such a creature of the state. We’re hoping with a ‘capital H’ that something gets done.”

Business continues to slip

River Downs, located along the Ohio River facing the hills of Northern Kentucky, arguably is the state’s nicest racetrack in terms of ambiance. It still draws a crowd on certain weekends.

On Saturday, May 30, with good weather, roughly 2,000 patrons of all ages were on hand, not a bad crowd considering the track’s advertising budget has been slashed, but not great given the fact the Cincinnati Reds were playing in Milwaukee.

Hanessian said the gathering “looked like a Tuesday crowd of 15 years ago.” When asked how business was going this year, he said: “Awful—horrible.”

For May 30, total on-site handle, which includes full-card simulcasts, was $290,003, down from $342,578 for the same date in 2008, according to OSRC statistics. Per capita wagering at River Downs is fairly strong, but overall, total handle in the plant in 2009 was down 16.4% through May 30.

Thistledown near Cleveland is off 18.3% this year, and Beulah Park near Columbus is down 11.3%, according to commission figures.

River Downs almost didn’t offer Thoroughbred racing this year because of economics and a dispute over advance deposit wagering that eventually was resolved. The track was awarded 104 dates; Hanessian believes 90 would have been more manageable, and it remains to be seen what he will request for 2010 when applications for dates are due Aug. 15.

“It’s the same thing I said before: We’re only continuing a losing operation for the prospects of getting help,” Hanessian said. “We have no debt, which makes it easier, but we still have to dig deep into our pockets to keep it going. River Downs is a nice place, but it’s expensive to keep it up.

“The last four years have been horrendous. They’re wiping out all the good times.”

The only track in Ohio with a positive number so far this year is Lebanon Raceway, a harness track that greatly reduced live dates but is open year-round for simulcasts. Through May 30, average daily total handle was actually up 1.2% to $104,482, the OSRC reported.

Statewide handle was down 12.2% to $124,354,434 for five months, which puts Ohio on track for a dismal year.

“If you look at the wagering numbers, it’s hard to believe,” Barron said. “It’s actually worse this year than last year. We’ll be life and death to get to $300 million by the end of the year.”

In 1997, the first full year with full-card simulcasts, total handle in Ohio topped $675 million.

Making the most of a little

Though purses continue to fall, a shortage of Ohio-bred runners has created unexpected benefits. In some open events, an additional $5,000 is available for state-breds, as was the case May 30 in an open allowance test on the turf at River Downs.

The purse was a modest $9,400, but the winner, Call It the Blues, an Ohio-registered stakes-winning gelding by Part the Waters, earned the additional $5,000 bonus. The second-place finisher was another Ohio-bred, the 4-year-old gelding Allsarott, a brother to Halmi who almost won the Green Carpet last year.

Hickman named Allsarott for her kids—Allison, Sarah, and Scott. Halmi is her maiden name.

Hickman purchased the broodmare, Laura Lynn, for $9,000. It turned out to be a pretty good investment.

“I think you just try to breed nice mares to nice stallions, and try to breed a nice foal,” Hickman said. “I have a lot of people asking, ‘Why don’t you breed in Indiana?’ There are 35,000 foals in Kentucky, 1,200 in Indiana, and maybe 300 in Ohio. I have 2% of the Ohio population with the five I have in my back yard.”

Jeff Greenhill, who trains Allsarott and Halmi, is having a pretty good year with almost 30% winners. He said it has helped winning several races at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, where purses for some classes are triple those at River Downs.

Greenhill is based year-round in the Cincinnati, Ohio, metro area at River Downs and Turfway Park, the Northern Kentucky track that’s lobbying for racetrack VLTs. The industry will find out the week of June 1 whether the issue is on the call for a special legislative session in Kentucky.

Greenhill plans to take advantage of opportunities. He noted Allsarott has earned about $100,000 for Hickman in 16 starts.

“If he was a Kentucky-bred, maybe not,” Greenhill said. “The answer is, keep yourself in the best company you can, and keep your horses in the worst company you can. I hope Ohio racing doesn’t go anywhere.”

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