Thistledown requested 122 live racing days.

Thistledown requested 122 live racing days.

Courtesy of ThistleDown

For Ohio Tracks, 2013 a Transitional Year

There are many moving parts as Ohio racing grapples with introduction of VLTs.

With one exception, there could be little change in live racing dates at Ohio tracks in 2013, but significant alterations are possible for 2014 should more facilities begin operating video lottery terminals.

The Ohio State Racing Commission Aug. 22 acknowledged receipt of applications for racing dates, but historically, schedules aren't finalized for months because of sometimes-contentious negotiations between racetracks and horsemen's groups.

"This is a beginning point," OSRC chairman Robert Schmitz said. "We will be addressing (dates) in the future."

On the Thoroughbred side, Thistledown near Cleveland requested 122 live racing days, the same as it requested for 2012. Beulah Park near Columbus asked for 90, down from 117 for this year. River Downs didn't submit an application, and on an OSRC list is credited with zero days.

OSRC member Willie Koester said he expects River Downs, which applied for 93 Thoroughbred dates and three Quarter Horse dates for 2012, to submit its proposal soon.

On the Standardbred side, four tracks combined applied for 375 dates, 14 more than this year. Scioto Downs, a Columbus track that opened a VLT casino in June, requested 73 dates, up from 56 this year.

Northfield Park near Cleveland asked for 211 dates, one more than this year; Lebanon Raceway between Cincinnati and Dayton requested 49, down from 52; and Raceway Park in Toledo is seeking 42 days, down from 44.

Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said he has had talks with Thistledown officials but not management at River Downs. He said the Beulah Park request for fewer dates was expected.

Beulah Park also told the OSRC it wouldn't be open for evening simulcasts, and did not apply to offer simulcasts outside of its live meet. That came about after Scioto Downs, which is located about 20 minutes from Beulah Park, opted to begin year-round simulcasts to complement its VLT operation.

The two tracks have had an agreement to share the Columbus market, but there was a clause that said they could end the simulcast deal when one or both facilities installed VLTs.

"This will clearly have an effect on our live racing handle and purses," said Jim McKinney, general manager at Beulah Park. "We don't know how to react to it at this time."

A 2012 law ties minimum live racing dates to the level of VLT revenue at each racetrack, with a range of 75 to 125. The number can be increased or decreased, however, should horsemen and tracks reach an agreement to do so, subject to approval from the OSRC. No fewer than 50 live racing days can be offered at any track.

Thus far only Scioto Downs, owned by MTR Gaming Group, has VLTs. Thistledown is expected to begin gaming by the end of the second quarter of 2013, but it doesn't appear any other track will have the machines operating next year.

Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Beulah Park and Raceway Park, plans to relocate both facilities and build racetrack casinos, while Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns River Downs, has held its plans close to the vest.

Lebanon Raceway's racing permits have been acquired by partners Churchill Downs Inc. and Delaware North, which plan to build a racetrack casino south of Dayton. Northfield Park has taken on Hard Rock Entertainment as a gaming partner, but no startup date for VLTs has been announced.

Meanwhile, racing officials confirmed Aug. 22 there still is no agreement between racetracks and horsemen on the percentage of VLT revenue that will go to purses. A 2012 law sets return to purses at 9%-11% of VLT revenue, though the intent was for the two parties to strike a deal.

Because Scioto Downs is operating VLTs, 9% of revenuethe minimum in the lawis going to an escrow account for purses. But the track on its own has raised most purses 50%-100% during its current meet.

OSRC chairman Robert Schmitz said the commission is soliciting comments on how almost $600,000 awarded to racing from 1% of revenue from two non-track casinos in Ohio should be spent. The casinos are located in Cleveland and Toledo; a third in Cincinnati is expected to open next year.

"We need to get an idea on how to get money to purses and the like," Schmitz said.

Pari-mutuel handle on live racing at Scioto Downs is up at least 20% over last year. The track races three nights a week, and the entry box has been flooded given the enhanced purses.

Handle this year is down at the other six tracks in Ohio. For Thoroughbred meets, field size has reached anemic levels.

Through Aug. 22, River Downs has averaged 6.53 horses per race and Thistledown 6.60 horses per race. Earlier this year, Beulah Park averaged 6.79 horses per race, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems.

Last year wasn't much better. River Downs averaged 7.02 horses per race, Thistledown 7.21, and Beulah Park 7.61. All three tracks now run mostly programs of seven or eight races.