A Done Deal Between Calder and Gulfstream

A Done Deal Between Calder and Gulfstream
Photo: Coady Photography

A deal has been approved that will end the head-to-head competition between Calder Casino & Race Course and Gulfstream Park.

Calder president Maureen Adams announced July 1 that the racetrack had received Florida regulators' approval "which allows The Stronach Group and Gulfstream Park to operate racing in South Florida. Live racing will return to Calder in October under the operation of The Stronach Group and Gulfstream Park."

The financial details of the arrangement were not disclosed. Churchill Downs Inc., the parent company of Calder, will continue to own the racetrack property and operate its casino.

Calder is expected to race in October and November with Gulfstream running the remaining months with no overlapping schedules. A minimum of 190 race days will be run at Gulfstream each year with 40 days to be run at Calder.

However, those 40 days will be operated by Gulfstream. Calder is required by state law to offer 40 days of live racing to retain its casino license. Officials close to the negotiations have said the term of the agreement is six years.

"This is a new era for Florida racing," said Phil Combest, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "The horsemen are looking forward to a much brighter future here in South Florida. Churchill Downs has long made it clear that horse racing is only a means to an end for them. They're a casino company now.

"On the other hand, The Stronach Group and Gulfstream Park have demonstrated time and time again that their focus is on horse racing. On raising purses. On improving their facilities. On making it a better experience for all concerned. The horsemen are excited to be their partners and look forward to the journey ahead."

The deal was also lauded by the state's owner and breeder association, which called it "ground-breaking."

"We can now finally and sincerely work together, hand-in-hand as a united Florida Thoroughbred industry, and begin addressing the real opportunities and challenges that were not possible to deal with in the past with the two tracks in constant conflict," said Lonny Powell, chief executive officer of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association. "We look forward to working with Gulfstream and Frank Stronach who now serve as the Miami area's singular management and marketing entity in order to grow and improve all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry in our Sunshine State."

Changes at Calder have already begun. Track management announced July 1 it has canceled live racing for July 4 and would discontinue simulcast operations in its grandstand and casino buildings at the close of business July 1.

 "Gulfstream Park started a journey more than two years ago to create a more vibrant Thoroughbred industry in Florida," Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said. "Having enjoyed year-over-year growth the past three years, we wanted to continue the momentum Gulfstream's champions meet generated rather than try to rebuild that momentum and fan base every December.

"Gulfstream and The Stronach Group believe we will now be able to create a stronger Thoroughbred industry through a more innovative racing schedule and premier stakes events while increasing purses, as well as owners' and breeders' awards. Gulfstream is not only committed to making its state-of-the-art facility in Hallandale Beach one of the world's most unique entertainment destinations, but we are committed to making our 40-day meet at Calder a memorable experience for those attending the races and those viewing the races online and at simulcast sites throughout the world."

Calder patrons who wish to redeem winning tickets or mutuel vouchers may do so during the hours of noon to 6 p.m. EDT at the first floor south entrance of the grandstand through July 11. After July 11, any unredeemed vouchers or tickets must be taken to Gulfstream for redemption.

There were unconfirmed reports Calder plans to level its grandstand and construct temporary facilities for its 40-day meet.

Since late last year, CDI had considered but rejected several Stronach Group offers to either buy or lease Calder. In February CDI rejected purchase offer that by some unconfirmed reports was in the $100 million range.

One key factor was CDI's determination to continue to own and operate Calder's  casino, which opened in 2010. Under Florida law, a pari-mutuel operator must keep its racing or jai-alai business in order to obtain and retain a casino license.

Gulfstream will take over the operation of Calder's stable area, where there are 1,800 stalls reportedly about half occupied. There have been reports that CDI within several years might want to convert part of Calder's stable area into industrial property or into a hotel/casino building.

As expected, the long-pending agreement  was generally welcomed by horsemen looking forward to a return to stability and  the prospect of bigger purses at Gulfstream.

"Churchill Downs wants to have horse racing just two days a  year–the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks," said Carlo Vaccarezza, a Gulfstream-based trainer and breeder. "Today, we are free at last from Churchill Downs in racing in Florida. We should be shooting off fireworks in honor of what Mr. Frank Stronach and (Gulfstream president) Tim Ritvo are doing for racing."

Vaccarezza said he expects the attraction of Gulfstream's new schedule will induce more trainers who spend winters in South Florida to keep some horses at Gulfstream year-round.

"It is a great relief to finally get thisdeal done," said trainer Larry Bates, who in mid-June moved his stable from Calder to Gulfstream. "Now, you will be able to take owners to a sale again, and they'll be ready to spend $40,000 for a horse because they know they won't have to run for next to nothing at Calder."

Bates offered the reason he stayed at Calder until recently. "I love the racing surface," he said. "It is the most forgiving I have seen, and it is very good for training young horses."

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