Another Battle Looms Over South Florida Dates

Gulfstream officials are interested in racing more than four months a year.

Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course appear headed toward another dispute over southeast Florida racing dates, with Gulfstream preparing for a major expansion in the second half of 2013 and Calder planning to add December back to its schedule.

Gulfstream believes it needs to grow beyond its four-month meets to help pay year-round operating costs of its racing/casino facilities and to help attract more customers in the restaurant and retail portion of its 250-acre property, track president Tim Ritvo said.

Calder will not relinquish any of its eight racing months, said John Marshall, the track's vice president and general manager for racing. Calder in 2011 agreed to let neighboring Gulfstream race in December of 2011 and 2012 in return for two extra weeks in April, to avoid head-to-head racing and resolve a bitter dispute over dates.

Now, Calder wants a 2013 return of December, which for 40 years had been an important month for its racing revenue and for horsemen.

Thoroughbred racing dates are set in Florida through June 30, 2013. Gulfstream will hold an 87-day meet from Dec. 1, 2012 to April 5, 2013, sandwiched between two Calder meets that have a combined 150 racing dates.

Florida Thoroughbred tracks have a two-month period ending Feb. 28, 2013, to pick dates for the 12 months beginning July 1, 2013. Under a system in place since 2001, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering does not award dates, and usually gives automatic approval of tracks' selections.

Marshall and Ritvo declined to comment on reports that Gulfstream contacted Calder late this spring about possible schedule changes. Third parties have said issues between the two tracks could include financial arrangements if Calder reduced its schedule.

A major shift in dates would mean a change in Calder's requirement to run at least 150 days per year through 2019 as part of its agreement with the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.   The 150-day requirement is a reason Calder needs a nine-month racing calendar, Marshall said.

The Florida HBPA is not commenting "at this time" regarding racing dates, said its executive director, Kent Stirling.

Calder, located in Miami Gardens, is about eight miles west of Gulfstream, which is in Hallandale Beach. Since they agreed to the current schedule, the two Miami-area tracks have had a business relationship Marshall and Ritvo have described as cooperative. Both also said they hope to avoid head-to-head racing.

"We would like to work out an arrangement that is best for racing in Florida and for all the parties," Ritvo said, noting those parties are Gulfstream, Calder, horsemen, fans, and the state of Florida.

Ritvo said the shift of December racing to Gulfstream resulted in better purses, higher pari-mutuel handle, more tax revenue for Florida, and more national exposure because of the popularity of Gulfstream with bettors. Gulfstream sought the December dates because traditionally by late November, many trainers from northern states have sent horses to Gulfstream or to its affiliate Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla.

But Marshall said the December shift proved detrimental to horsemen who are based year-round in South Florida and mostly stabled at Calder. He cited data from Equibase on December purses at Calder in 2010 and at Gulfstream in 2011, and on mid-April purses at Gulfstream in 2011 and at Calder in 2012.

The shift of six weeks resulted in a net purse increase of $2.1 million at the latest Gulfstream meet, but also in an $807,000 decline in purse winnings for South Florida-based horsemen for those weeks, according to Calder.

"We feel that a return of December to Calder would be in the best interests of our horsemen who are in Florida year-round," Marshall said.

Ritvo, a former trainer at Calder, said a dates expansion by Gulfstream would lead to more growth in purses, providing more reasons for Florida owners to buy and race horses in Florida.

Frank  Stronach, chairman of The Stronach Group and of Gulfstream, has mentioned year-round racing among his goals for Gulfstream. Ritvo said one Gulfstream idea is to have several months during which it and Calder would alternate having the weekend and weekday dates.

Marshall said Calder is not interested in that arrangement, partly because it would present logistical difficulties for horsemen and for employees who work at both tracks.

At Saratoga Race Course during the week of Aug. 6, several owners and trainers told Ritvo they had heard Gulfstream is planning to add dates. "There was a lot of interest," Ritvo said. "They know that we have good racing and good purses."

Trainers Dale Romans and Peter Walder said they would be ready to keep some horses year-round at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows, Ritvo said. "They would not keep their top stakes horses down here for the summer, but it would be good quality," Ritvo said.

For summer, a rainy season in the Miami area, Gulfstream would change the mixture of its dirt track.

"We might not schedule as many turf races in the summer," Ritvo said. "But we have a huge course and can use the portable rail."

Gulfstream officials also believe having at least several racing days most weeks each year would generate publicity and help attract customers to The Village at Gulfstream Park retail complex that is next to the track's racing/casino building. The retail complex cost $250 million to build and opened in February 2010 as a joint venture of Magna Entertainment, The Stronach Group's predecessor, and its developer, Forest City Enterprises.

The Stronach Group bought Cleveland, Ohio-based Forest City's stake Aug. 1 for an undisclosed price.

Occupancy figures were not readily available for The Village of Gulfstream Park, which has space for about 70 tenants. Ritvo said The Stronach Group plans to add more restaurants; that component has generally brought in more business than the mall's boutique stores.

Gulfstream expects to build a movie theater within a year and a hotel, with a partner, within several years, Ritvo said.