Wide Impact Seen from Calder Stall Rent Plan

Horsemen fear owners will ship out of Florida and smaller stables may have to close.

A plan to start charging rent for stalls during the non-racing season at Calder Casino & Race Course is leading to concerns among horsemen that some owners might permanently ship horses out of Florida and that some smaller stables could be forced to close.

On Sept. 28, the Miami Gardens, Fla., track announced  that to  help offset its declining revenues it will charge trainers $10 a day per stall from Dec. 1, 2012 through April 5, 2013. Those are the dates for the next race meet at Gulfstream Park, which is eight miles from Calder.

The 2012 racing season will end Nov. 30 at Calder, which is owned by Churchill Downs Inc. Calder will open its 2013 season April 6.

John Marshall, Calder's vice president and general manager for racing, said the track will continue its long-standing policy of not charging owners and trainers for stall space during its racing season.

If the forecast about horses being sent from Calder comes true, leaders of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and several veteran Calder-based trainers expect there could be smaller race fields with impact on handle  at Calder and perhaps to a lesser extent at Gulfstream. Research by the Florida HBPA indicates that about 45% of Gulfstream starters are usually stabled at Calder.

The economic impact of Calder's  stall fees could trickle down through Florida's Thoroughbred industry, said trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., who has horses stabled at Calder and at Monmouth Park.  

The prospect of paying for stalls until Calder resumes racing could lead some owners to delay sending 2-year-olds down from the Ocala area, said Plesa and another trainer who asked not to be identified. That could result in smaller fields in some early-season in 2-year-old races.

"This out-of-blue announcement came a week after the deadline for submission of stall applications to Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows," said Florida HBPA president Phil Combest. "Stabling at private facilities such as Payson Park has been reserved for the winter by northern horsemen. Basically, Calder horsemen have nowhere to go."

Gulfstream and its Palm Meadows affiliate charge various stabling fees but rescind them during the month when a horse races at Gulfstream.

Marshall said Calder anticipated some harsh reaction to the new stall fees. But he emphasized that Calder made its decision due to economic necessity.

He said Calder decided not to take its other option, permitted under its contract with the Florida HBPA, of closing its stables during a large part of the Gulfstream meet.

But depending on  factors that include occupancy rates, Marshall said "the option does exist" for closing the stables at some point during the Gulfstream meet.

Calder, which has 1,800 stalls, has been rare among  U.S. Thoroughbred tracks in having its stables open year-round and not charging  for stalls at any times.

"Our new policy is in line with the standard in the racing industry, where tracks charge a stabling fee when they are open for training but not racing,"  Marshall said.

He added that "there has been an expectation among some people in the industry that we should remain open for free when we do not have racing, and while horses stabled here are racing at other tracks."

In a memo it sent to employees Sept. 28, Calder management said: "During the non-live racing months of the last three years, Calder's stable area occupancy rate lowered to 68%. With the impending stable fees, that occupancy rate is expected to dip to nearly 50%. The stall fees will assist with offsetting a portion of stable area operating costs, not cover all expenses."

Calder's memo also said that while its pari-mutuel revenues have declined more than 40% in the last six years, its costs for equipment, fuel, labor and manure/refuse removal have experienced double-digit increases.

Calder  and other CDI tracks do not regularly announce handle numbers. But last December. Marshall told The Blood-Horse that Calder's all-sources handle was up about 3.5% in 2011 from the prior year. Periodic tabulations of data in Equibase charts indicate that Calder's average daily average all-sources handle has been in the $1.8 million to $2.0 million range in recent years.

The Florida HBPA hopes to schedule a meeting for Oct.4 of some of its board members  and Calder management, Combest said. Issues likely would include whether Calder can charge stall rents without Florida HBPA approval.

Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling noted that the stall fees would have a big impact, in proportion, for some smaller stables. As an example, a trainer with five horses would have a weekly fee of $350.

Plesa and trainer Joe Calascibetta, who have both saddled numerous Calder stakes winners, said they understand that Calder and CDI have economic reasons for charging stall rents during non-racing months.

Both said they plan to keep their horses at Calder, adding that Calder's timing of the announcement will make it difficult for trainers that would like to relocate.

Plesa noted that some trainers could send horses to owners' farms in Ocala for the winter. But the van ride to race at Gulfstream is about 280 miles. Calascibetta has 13 horses at Calder, and  Plesa will have 37 there after he sends his string from Monmouth Park. Both trainers or their family members have ownership stakes in some horses.

The weekly stall bills would be $910 for Calascibetta and $2,590 for Plesa.

"I live down here, so I will stay (at Calder) and deal with it," Calascibetta  said

"But some of the smaller stables are having trouble making  ends meet," he said. "We have not had a purse increase (at Calder) this year. The costs are rising. But it is not a good time  to ask owners  for more money,"

Plesa said "some smaller guys might not have any choice but to get out of the business." He added that it already is more difficult for "the guys just starting out" that are vital to the future of racing.

"I was once the guy just starting out," said Plesa, who in April 2012 joined the list of trainers with more than 2,000 career wins.