Florida Race Date Agreement Expected Soon

Deal between Gulfstream Park and Calder would avert head-to-head clash this summer.

Expectations are high that Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course will announce within days an agreement that would allow the two South Florida tracks to avoid running head-to-head starting in July.

Quick action will be needed to gain Florida regulators' approval and avoid the scheduling conflict that horsemen say will not benefit either ractrack. Calder in Miami Gardens, Fla., is eight miles away from Gulfstream.

An announcement could come between May 31 and June 3.

"I called (Gulfstream president) Tim Ritvo this morning and he said he is optimistic that something will get done," Phil Combest, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said May 29.

Combest and Ritvo spoke one day after officials with Gulfstream, Calder, and representatives of their parent companies—The Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc., respectivelyheld a meeting at Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Racetrack executives have met several times since April about Gulfstream's goal of developing a year-round racing schedule. As of a February filing deadline, both tracks had applied for racing dates every weekend from July 2013 through June 2014.

Two possible scenarios have been discussed that could avoid the head-to-head schedule.

The most likely would be for Gulfstream to pay several million dollars a year to lease Calder's racing business, including its stable area, and take over a to-be-determined number of Calder race dates.

Another possible outcome would be for The Stronach Group to buy Calder's racing business and stable area.

Calder is scheduled to have 150 race days during Florida's 2013-2014 fiscal year, from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014. State law requires Calder to run at least 80 days of live racing per fiscal year to keep its casino license.

Any agreement would require approval by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, based on its review of Florida laws and regulations. Industry leaders familiar with the negotiations said it probably would be easier to slip a lease agreement through those regulatory hoops. A change in the schedule also requires approval from the six other pari-mutuel businesses operating within 50 miles of the two racetracks.

Mardi Gras Racing & Gaming, a Greyhound track in Hallandale Beach, "would have to closely examine how a (Gulfstream-Calder) deal would impact us," said its general manager Dan Adkins.

Mardi Gras is located one mile north of Gulfstream. Both compete for casino customers.

Even if one or more of the pari-mutuels say "no" to a Calder-Gulfstream deal, the Florida DPMW could still approve an agreement based on the expected economic benefits for the state.

The concensus among Florida horsemen is that neither track would be profitable during most months of head-to-head racing.

"Head-to-head racing would help nobody," Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HBPA, said May 29. "We are hoping they decide something, and soon, to avoid it."

If Calder and Gulfstream agree to a sale or lease by June 2, it probably would be quickly followed by the Florida HBPA and Calder signing a purse contract for the Calder season that opened April 6.

Through June 2, the racetrack and horsemen's group are operating under an extension of the 2012 contract.

The sticking point is that Calder has not agreed to what the Florida HBPA calls "open access" if it runs head-to-head with Gulfstream. An "open access" policy means Calder-based trainers could freely van their horses to Gulfstream to race without losing their stalls. Gulfstream has agreed to provide the open access the Florida HBPA is seeking and announced May 31 it has approval to build 500 additional stalls.

As part of the federal Interstate Horseracing Act, racetracks cannot send out their races for simulcast wagering or receive simulcast signals from other tracks without approval from the official horsemen's association. From May 2-5, the Florida HBPA withdrew its permission for Calder to send out its signal. On May 9, the contract was extended through June 2.

The dates dispute between Gulfstream and Calder erupted last December when Gulfstream said it planned to begin what it calls "year-round racing." Under that plan it would keep its five-day-a week December through early April meet, on which annual handle has been growing, and add Saturdays and Sundays during the remaining weeks.

Early this year, Calder rejected several Gulfstream offers to lease racing dates.

The two tracks could not settle their dispute by the Florida DPMW's Feb. 28 deadline for choosing race dates for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, so both filed for year-round weekend racing. 

That set up the current round of negotiations, which thankfully for all concerned, could end with a settlement by the first week of June.