The fence at Calder

The fence at Calder

File Photo

New Calder Backside Fence Stirs Controversy

Long bitterness between Florida track, horsemen intensifies over latest development.

The long-running bitterness between Calder Casino & Race Course and South Florida horsemen has intensified in a new dispute one might call "Fencegate."

Parent company Churchill Downs Inc., preparing to redevelop parts of the Calder property, has started on the backside by putting up a wire fence. Trainers with horses inside said they have interpreted the fence as an order to "get out" by the end of this year; they are also complaining the fence is a safety hazard and hinders access to barns with approximately 700 horses.

In a Dec. 9 email, Calder vice president and general manager John Marshall said: "Passive work started Dec. 1 with the installation of the fence and utility disabling with the barns. Invasive work will begin soon after Jan 1. Gulfstream handled this communication with the horsemen as Calder's racing services provider. I'm told trainers and vendors have been notified to vacate the fenced zone by Dec. 31 for quite some time."

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one trainer with horses inside the fence said Gulfstream Park had not given a specific date but has told trainers inside the fence they will have to leave if CDI does not change its Jan. 1 timetable.

The area behind the fence is being prepared for development that is scheduled to begin shortly after Jan. 1 at the Miami Gardens, Fla., track, Marshall said. Calder and CDI would not provide any details on what CDI is going to construct in the area.

Thus, barring a postponement of plans by CDI and Calder, approximately three dozen trainers would be forced to move their horses out of Calder by the end of December. And very few stalls are available in South Florida. Gulfstream, which has racing scheduled through June 30, and its Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla., are filled to their combined capacity of about 2,500 horses.

Officials at Gulfstream declined to comment on the Calder fence.

Gulfstream, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., eight miles east of Calder, has leased 430 stalls there. Those stalls are on the opposite side of a roadway from the Calder-controlled stall space that is behind the fence.

If a large number of the fenced-in horses are taken away from South Florida it could hurt Gulfstream's field sizes and pari-mutuel handle, which have been at record levels during recent winter meets.

A look at data for Wednesday, Dec.10, the first weekday of the 2014-15 winter meet, shows the importance of the Calder horses to Gulfstream.

The day's 10 races had strong numbers, with all-sources handle of $4,082,654 and 109 starters. There were 44 entrants with at least one published workout at Calder, now identified with the code GPW (Gulfstream Park West).

It could not be readily determined how many of those 44 horses are stabled in the fenced-off area of Calder. It also could not be determined whether any of the horses that did not have listed workouts are at Calder.

Calder began digging and putting in fence posts Dec. 1. Within a week, it had installed a fence that is about a quarter-mile long.

It is on the east side of the roadway that begins after going through the gate to the stable area, near the Countyline Road entrance on Calder's north side. Some stalls are less than 100 feet from the fence.

There are gaps in the fence where horses can be taken out for morning training and where vans can come in to transport horses. Calder put these entrances and exits in under urging from the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

"We are very disappointed that this has happened," said Phil Combest, a trainer and owner who is president of the Florida HBPA. "We remain ready to work with anyone to help resolve the situation and limit any disruption."

Most of the the trainers in the fenced area are based year-round in South Florida, some with relatively small stables. Other trainers there shipped horses in from northern states during October.

CDI is a publicly traded company. Thus, Marshall and CDI director of corporate communications Courtney Norris said they cannot provide details of any plans for the Calder redevelopment because of Securities and Exchange Commission rules that prohibit forward-looking statements.

However, Norris said CDI has "no plans right now" to tear down Calder's seven-story grandstand building. Calder closed several floors in recent years amid declining handle and other financial problems.

For several months there have been expectations that CDI would tear down the 43-year-old building within weeks after the Nov. 30 closing day of the eight-week Gulfstream Park West meet that Gulfstream held at Calder. The city of Miami Gardens does not have readily available information on whether Calder or CDI have obtained or even applied for any permits for construction or demolition at Calder.

Reports that Calder has plans to convert portions of its 220-acre property to non-racing uses began circulating within days of Calder and CDI's July 1 signing of a racing dates agreement with Gulfstream and its parent company The Stronach Group, based in Aurora, Ont.

"I've heard that they are planning a destination hotel, maybe with a casino, and now I hear they are thinking about a truck stop," said Carlo Vaccarezza, a trainer and breeder based at Gulfstream.

Vaccarezza and several other horsemen said they have heard that environmental clean-up issues could delay or add to the costs of any projects at Calder.

Some horsemen are pointing to two possible solutions to "fencegate." The Stronach Group could lease some or all of the fenced-in stalls, or Frank Stronach, chairman of Gulfstream and The Stronach Group, could make a new offer to buy Calder. Early this year CDI turned down an offer that reportedly was in the $100 million range.

Gulfstream determines which horses can be stabled in the fenced area, but has no control over the land.

"In July some of us wondered why Gulfstream didn't lease more stalls, because you had to think that something like this could happen," the trainer said. "But they wanted a deal, and it seems they took what they could get."

The July 1 deal ended 12 months of weekend head-to-head racing between Gulfstream and Calder. Gulfstream took over racing at Calder for six years. It must have at least 40 race days a year at Calder to keep it eligible for its casino license.

CDI continues to own all of Calder and operate its casino. CDI has said numerous times that it expects its future growth will be in gaming ventures other than horse racing.

Gulfstream held its Calder meet from Oct. 8 through Nov. 30. The trainer said that during those weeks, Gulfstream officials told trainers CDI would not begin any development on Calder's backside until the spring of 2015. By then "snowbird" trainers will have moved horses back to northern states, temporarily opening up some stalls at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows.

But Calder surprised almost everyone when it began work Dec. 1.

"Horsemen were panicking when Churchill Downs started putting up fence posts," said another trainer in the fenced-in area who asked to not be identified because of concerns about retribution from Calder. "This is our livelihood. The only places we could go are in Palm Beach County (training centers). But they won't have enough space for all of these horses, and it is too far for most of us."

Some trainers might find stalls in Ocala. That is a four-hour drive from Gulfstream and Calder, but just a 90-minute drive from Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla.

Vaccarezza and trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. both criticized CDI and Calder for what they said is a lack of concern for grooms, hot walkers, and other employees who would lose jobs if trainers are displaced. Plesa's stalls are in the non-fenced part of Calder, where Gulfstream this summer did extensive renovations.

"What we have over here is what we should have everywhere here (at Calder), and it's what we could have if Churchill Downs cared about racing," said Plesa, who has trained at Calder for more than 25 years.

"What Churchill Downs is doing is appalling, and it again shows they don't want us," Vaccarezza agreed.

In a statement sent Dec. 16, CDI outlined its position.

"Gulfstream Park and the Florida HBPA have had exclusive control over Calder's stable area since the effective date of the agreement on July 1, 2014, with the responsibility to manage the horse population during the transition period," Norris said. "Churchill Downs, The Stronach Group, and the Florida HBPA agreed to a six-month transition period, ending Dec. 31, allowing adequate time to find alternative stabling for any remaining horses in Calder's stable area.

"Churchill Downs has continued to operate under the agreed-upon timetable since July 1 with the assurances of the other parties that the Dec. 31 deadline to vacate the property would be achieved. Churchill Downs began to implement required safety measures, such as installing a safety fence that was specifically designed to allow for the continued access to Calder's backside prior to the Dec. 31 deadline. This was the first step in the long-term development plan that is a critical aspect of the deal that all of the parties reached in order to preserve year-round racing in South Florida.

"The parties have worked extremely hard to negotiate and execute the three-way agreement that everyone agreed was the only viable long-term solution to preserve racing in South Florida on a year-round basis."