With No Dates Deal, Gulfstream Set to Open

With No Dates Deal, Gulfstream Set to Open
Photo: Coglianese Photos

Gulfstream Park president Tim Ritvo said June 14 it appears Gulfstream and Calder Casino & Race Course will race head-to-head on weekends beginning July 6.

The two Florida racetracks have been negotiating to avoid the overlap in meets and, Ritvo said, will continue to meet.

"A few days ago we felt we were close to an agreement, but (Calder) wanted some changes," Ritvo said. "We are still talking. We have a call scheduled with them (the afternoon of June 14)."

Meanwhile, Calder remains publicly optimistic about reaching a settlement that would either avoid head-to-head racing or have it only on a limited number of weekends through the rest of 2013.

"We are hopeful that we are able to come to an agreement soon," Calder vice president and general manager of racing John Marshall said June 13. "Gulfstream has given us their proposed resolution, and we are in the process of responding to their proposal."

Ritvo declined to provide details on talks that Gulfstream and its parent company, The Stronach Group, are having with Calder and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc.

Gulfstream's next race day will be June 25, as an addition to its 2012-13 meet that ended April 5. The first two days of Gulfstream's summer meet will be July 1 and July 4.

"All systems are go for July 6 to start year-round racing with every Saturday and Sunday in our summer meet," Ritvo said.

For several weeks, there have been expectations the tracks would reach an agreement to transfer some dates from Calder to Gulfstream, most likely through a lease arrangement. The two tracks reportedly have not agreed on the price Gulfstream would pay to lease the dates.

Another issue, of concern to Calder, involves simulcast wagering; reportedly it is making it more difficult to settle the fight over dates. Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, even though they are not in the midst of traditional race meets, in May began taking simulcast signals from tracks outside Florida and transmitting them to other Florida pari-mutuel facilities in an attempt to keep more revenue.

Trainers prepare for changes

Many trainers and owners said the lack of an agreement between the two tracks is making it increasingly difficult to plan for the second half of 2013. They continue to hope for a Calder-Gulfstream deal that would call off plans for head-to-head racing.

"It is like waiting for two freight trains that are going to collide," said Larry Bates, a Calder-based trainer. His stable includes multiple Calder stakes winner Black Diamond Cat.

Gulfstream's condition book for July shows it with either nine or 10 races daily and average daily overnight purses of about $200,000. Gulfstream might soon revise the numbers and raise the average to about $300,000, Ritvo said.

About 250 horses were stabled at Gulfstream as of June 14. Ritvo said the number will grow to between 650 and 700 by early July.

Gulfstream has 1,100 stalls. It is preparing to add 500 stalls in new double-deck structures. Any trainer who brings horses to Gulfstream for its summer meet will be able to keep them there year-round, Ritvo said.

Gulfstream's affiliate, Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla., will open several weeks prior to Gulfstream's traditional meet.

Peter Walder is among trainers who kept some horses at Gulfstream following its 2012-13 meet. Ritvo said Dale Romans, the 2012 Eclipse Award winning trainer, plans to have about 30 horses at Gulfstream for the July-November meet, while Eddie Plesa Jr., David Fawkes, Steve Dwoskin, and Kirk Ziadie are among the trainers who will move their stables from Calder to Gulfstream.

Frank Calabrese is among the owners who will move their horses from Calder to Gulfstream. Through June 13 Calabrese led Calder owners with 39 wins, while Ziadie was second in the trainer standings with 28 wins, mostly with Calabrese horses.

Gulfstream does not yet have a prospective list of jockeys. "I'm sure they will ride wherever there is the most money," Ritvo said.

Gulfstream has hired Pete Aiello as track announcer for its July-November meet. Aiello is the track announcer for Hialeah Park's Quarter Horse meets and is a former track announcer at River Downs in Ohio.

Larry Collmus will remain the track announcer for Gulfstream's traditional winter meet.  He is currently the track announcer at Monmouth Park.

On July 6 Calder will have its annual Summit of Speed program with four graded stakes at six furlongs. Gulfstream, so far, does not have any stakes scheduled that day.

Calder could have an advantage over Gulfstream July 6 and on several of its other traditional stakes days in the battle for on track fans and for off-site betting. Otherwise, the battle for pari-mutuel handle could depend on the strength of Gulfstream's stakes schedule and on the extent to which Gulfstream's brand recognition attracts simulcast and advance deposit wagering business.

This year's dates dispute follows an intense fight in 2011, when Calder agreed to relinquish December racing in return for two weeks in mid-April. Marshall said that deal "was meant to end all conflict."

He noted that Calder's first filing with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering for 2013-14 was for its mid-April through November dates.

"Gulfstream's choice to pursue head-to-head racing will bring a heavy toll on the Florida Thoroughbred industry," Marshall said.

Inter-track wagering implications

Calder previously had exclusivity as host track for Florida's lucrative intra-track wagering business from mid-May through November. It got most of the revenue from that wagering, which totals $250 million or more each year.

The three Florida Thoroughbred tracks have traditionally served as hosts only during periods when they hold full live race meets. Calder's interpretation is that a Florida track can be a host only when it is running a full meet with racing at least three days a week.

However, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs are using a new interpretation of how Florida laws allow them to be host tracks during each Florida fiscal year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30. That interpretation is that if a track has racing July 1 and the following June 30, it can be host track the entire 12 months no matter how many days it has racing.

On May 7, Gulfstream received Florida DPMW permission to race June 25. Within several days, it resumed serving as a host track. Tampa Bay is holding a two-day meet June 30 and July 1 to give it year-round status.

The three tracks are fighting for shares of host-track revenue that totaled $18 million to $20 million during Florida's 2011-12 fiscal year.

Betting at guest tracks on imported Thoroughbred races was approximately $270 million in fiscal 2011-12, according to the Florida DPMW. Of that amount, $191 million was on signals handled by Calder, with $49 million from Gulfstream and $30 million from Tampa Bay Downs.

Of the $270 million, a blended 20% takeout rate would be $54 million, with perhaps $18 million shared by the three tracks.

A state law requires that the guest track receive at least one-third of takeout, with the remainder divided evenly between the host track and horsemen's association with which it has a contract.

As of June 13 the Florida DPMW had not released ITW data for May 2013.

Calder has filed a petition with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings asking it to determine whether the Florida DPMW violated Florida laws by allowing Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs to be host tracks during periods other than their traditional race meets.

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