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Questions Linger as FL Dates Deadline Nears

Florida tracks must submit preliminary requests for 2014 dates by Jan. 4.

With New Year approaching, it's time for Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course to indicate whether their ongoing battle over racing dates will continue.

The two South Florida tracks will be picking future racing dates while they still have six months left in their first season of head-to-head, weekend racing. Gulfstream is leading by an almost 3-to-1 margin in average daily all-sources handle amid growing financial problems at Calder.

Gulfstream, Calder, and Florida's other horse racing tracks have until 5 p.m. EST Jan. 4 to send the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering their preliminary lists of racing dates for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins next July 1. They must pick final dates by Feb. 28 under a system in which Florida tracks choose their own dates with approval that is usually automatic from the Florida DPMW.

As of the morning of Dec. 27, the Florida DPMW had not received any dates filings from Calder, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay Downs, or Hialeah Park.

The key question regarding Tampa Bay Downs is whether it will file for dates that, on pending a review of Florida DPMW rules, could enable it to continue as a year-round host track for simulcasts of out-of-state races.

Racing officials from around the country will be watching to see if Hialeah Park attempts to return to Thoroughbred racing for the first time since 2001. Under its Quarter Horse license, Hialeah Park can hold a mixed meet with up to half its races for Thoroughbreds.

Prior to the opening of this season's Quarter Horse meet, Hialeah Park chairman and owner John Brunetti said it is unlikely his track will have Thoroughbred races if it has to run head-to-head against either Gulfstream or Calder. Gulfstream is the only track among the four that has provided The Blood-Horse with any details about its plan for racing dates.

In mid-December Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said his track expects to run at least three days a week during the 12 months between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015.

"Calder has told us they will not try to change the dates (Fridays through Sundays) they have through June 30, but they have not told us what their days will be next year," said Phil Combest, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Combest and Lonny Powell, executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, said that for the overall good of Florida racing, it is important for the two tracks to avoid head-to-head racing in 2014-15.

"The total handle and purses are bigger with both Miami tracks running year-round," Powell said. "But, still, the situation is not good for Florida racing. It is causing confusion for the horsemen and for fans.

"The FTBOA wants the Miami area to continue to have two strong tracks. Gulfstream is proving to be the track of preference for bettors and for horsemen. So, maybe Calder should be the track that makes some accommodations."

Powell said one change, recommended by others, might be for Calder in 2014-15 to have at least some of its racing on weekdays.

Gulfstream began year-round racing in July 2013. It had racing Saturdays and Sundays through November, then opened its traditional winter meet, with a five-day-a-week schedule for January through March.

Gulfstream's decision to run year-round put it into conflict with Calder, which had traditionally been the only Miami-area Thoroughbred track with racing during the summer and fall. Calder responded with a final dates filing that has it racing Fridays through Sundays until June 30, 2014.

There are expectations that Calder's first filing will be for another 12 months of Friday-through-Sunday racing, which would again overlap with Gulfstream. The tracks are just eight miles apart. However, Calder and parent company Churchill Downs Inc. could resume negotiations with Gulfstream and its parent, The Stronach Group, for an agreement that would prevent another year of head-to-head racing.

Early in June 2013, the two sides were close to an arrangement for Gulfstream to lease some of Calder's weekend dates and move them to Gulfstream. Disagreements over revenue splits for simulcasts reportedly prevented a deal, but the question remains whether the Florida DPMW would allow a lease arrangement for dates.

Calder needs a minimum of 80 racing dates a year to retain the license for a casino that has approximately 1.200 Las Vegas-style slot machines. The casino is an important part of CDI's plan to expand the non-racing side of its business.

A review of Equibase charts shows the impact head-to-head racing has had on Calder.

On Saturdays and Sundays from July through November, Gulfstream reported an daily average all-sources pari-mutuel handle of about $2.5 million to about $1.2 million for Calder. That average is about a $500,000 decline from 2012 at Calder.

Gulfstream added Friday racing Dec. 6, and most of its top trainers and their horses have arrived from northern states. Since then, Gulfstream has been expanding its lead in handle. Over the Dec. 20-22 weekend the average daily all-sources handles were $6.6 million for Gulfstream and $1.3 million for Calder.

Gulfstream had 30 races and average handle of about $660,000 per race. Calder had 25 races and an average handle of about $155,000 per race.

Gulfstream averaged 9.0 starters per race while Calder averaged 7.4 per race. Gulfstream's average daily purses were $365,000, and Calder's average was about $120,000 for the weekend.

The two Miami-area tracks are competing with cross-state rival Tampa Bay Downs for simulcast and advance deposit wagering bettors that follow Florida racing during the winter. Over the Dec. 20-22 weekend, Tampa Bay Downs had 28 races and average daily all-sources handle of about $3.6 million. It averaged 8.6 starters per race and about $160,000 per day in purses.