The clock is ticking toward the final day for Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course to reach an agreement that would prevent another bruising 12 months of head-to-head racing.
Officials of the two South Florida tracks and of their giant industry parent companies reportedly are still talking about a possible deal. But the widespread view among local horsemen and other observers is that a last-minute deal is unlikely due to complex issues and the animosity that has developed between the two tracks.
Calder, Gulfstream, and all other Florida pari-mutuels have until 5 p.m. Eastern time Feb. 28 to send the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering their final race date selections for the 12 months from July 1, 2014 through June 30 2015. Filings can be submitted by facsimile.
In preliminary filings submitted in early January, each track listed a schedule that includes every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday during the 12-month period.
One solution reportedly under consideration would have Calder racing unopposed two months in the fall of 2014 and Gulfstream racing unopposed the other 10 months during the Florida fiscal year from July 2014 through June 2015.
The two tracks, just eight miles apart, have both been racing on Saturdays and Sundays since last July and are scheduled to continue that competition through the end of this June. Gulfstream also will race on Fridays through April 11, and Calder is racing Fridays through Sundays year-round.
Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo and Calder vice president and general manager of racing John Marshall were not available for comment during the week that began Feb. 24. At each track, another official said they will have no comments on racing dates until after the Feb. 28 deadline.
"They (Calder and Gulfstream) are still making some calls back and forth," said Phil Combest, a trainer/owner who is president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
"I was more optimistic a few days ago than I am now," he said. "We are very concerned that there won't be an agreement. The waiting has been hard on everyone. Trainers need to start telling owners where they will be running, so they can make plans for the year."
Head-to-head racing has led to financial problems at Calder and some heavy spending at Gulfstream.
Gulfstream, as expected, has had a large edge in head-to-head handle. Since January, amid its current graded stakes-laden winter meet, it has beaten Calder by a margin of about 7-1 in per race all-sources handle.
Calder's revenues from racing fell from $61 million in 2012 to $32.7 million in 2013, according to the annual report its parent Churchill Downs Inc. released Feb. 26.
CDI attributed the drop partly to a reduction in live Calder race days from 159 to 129, and declines in handle due to the Gulfstream competition.
CDI also cited new competition from Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs that has led to a big decline in Calder's host track simulcast business.
Gulfstream has increased its spending, including $4 million to construct a new barn with 380 stalls. From July through November, in its first summer/fall meet, it offered trainers a $500 per horse starting bonus.
Ritvo has called that spending "an investment in the future."
Head-to-head racing between two neighbor tracks is possible in Florida because horse tracks, Greyhound tracks, and jai-alai frontons pick their own dates, with approval that is almost automatic from the Florida DPMW.
Florida pari-mutuels have until each Jan. 4 to submit a preliminary dates filing and until Feb. 28 to submit a final filing.
Calder, in Miami Gardens, Fla., said in its first filing that it plans to race Fridays through Sundays every week during the 12 months from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015.
Gulfstream, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., said it in its preliminary filing that it plans to have racing Wednesdays through Sundays in January, February, and March in 2015, and on Thursdays through Sundays during the remaining nine months.
Changing scheduled race dates after Feb. 28 would require Calder or Gulfstream to obtain approvals from the other as well as from the six other pari-mutuels in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, and from the Florida DPMW.
The Florida DPMW alone could approve a schedule change if it determines that it would have a positive economic impact on the two tracks, leading to an increase in state tax payments.
A sale or lease of Calder prior to June 30 could provide the Florida DPMW a reason to approve a change in Calder race dates for 2014-15.
This January, Gulfstream's parent, The Stronach Group, reportedly offered CDI about $100 million to buy Calder—with the deal covering its casino and racing operations.
Last June, the two sides reportedly were close to an agreement for Gulfstream to lease Calder's racing operations, including its stables, and transfer some of Calder's dates to Gulfstream.
"They have come close several times, but Churchill kept wanting changes," said trainer/owner Carlo Vaccarezza, who is stabled at Gulfstream.
"I understand that this has been very frustrating for Frank Stronach (owner of The Stronach Group and chairman of Gulfstream)," he said. "Mr. Stronach wants to do things that will help racing in Florida. I am convinced that Churchill Downs Inc. is interested only in casinos and that it doesn't like or want horsemen or horses."
Vaccarezza is among about 40 horsemen who last summer moved their stables from Calder to Gulfstream.