Fla. Dates: Still Plenty of Questions

Gulfstream/Calder resolution opens door for questions regarding the future

By Jim Freer

The two-month dispute over southeast Florida’s racing calendar ended Feb. 28 with Gulfstream Park getting the December 2011 dates it sought in the first place and with unanswered questions about how that came about and what might happen in future competition over racing dates.

In separate announcements Feb. 28, Gulfstream and neighboring Calder Casino & Race Course selected schedules that will have Gulfstream rather than Calder holding races through most of December 2011 and with no head-to-head racing during the 12 months beginning July 1, 2011.

Calder also said it will add two mid-April weeks to its 2012 meet—taking those dates on which Gulfstream recently has been the only South Florida track with racing.

The new schedule basically is a  “dates swap” that some observers expected since Gulfstream late last December first told Florida racing regulators that it planned to race throughout December 2011.

Now, there are questions of why Calder, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., is giving up a month that usually has been one of its strongest and taking two weeks that have provided the lowest handle for Gulfstream, which is owned by MI Developments.

The release of new schedules raised the issue of whether MID made a cash payment to CDI, or whether Calder is receiving any financial incentives such as a larger share of revenues on its year-round cross-simulcasting with Gulfstream. Through March 1, officials of the two companies declined to comment or could not be reached for comment.

Officials of CDI and MID held discussions over the Feb. 25-27 weekend with a goal of reaching a settlement to avoid head-to-head racing.

The last time two southeast Florida tracks raced head-to-head was in November 1989, when Hialeah and Calder ran.  Hialeah ended its meet after several weeks, when state regulators allowed it to stop because of financial problems. In recent weeks, numerous horsemen have said that experience still shows there would not be enough wagering dollars or horses for two tracks to have viable meets if they race head-to-head.

If the tracks had raced head-to-head, trainers and owners would have “been in a difficult position of having to choose and take sides,” said Bill White, one of the leading trainers at Calder who also races at Gulfstream. “This was a dispute between the tracks, and they were using us as leverage. It is great that this is over and we can focus on our business of putting on a show and winning races.”

By making separate announcements, Calder and Gulfstream took a step that, at least in public, gave an impression that there was no combined decision.  A joint statement might have given some members of the racing community, including supporters of Hialeah Park, and some members of the Florida Legislature reasons to cite possible collusion and request a return to regulation of Florida Thoroughbred racing dates, which existed before 2002.

Since 2002, Gulfstream has had racing from early January through late April and Calder has run the remainder of the year.  They began that schedule in 2002, one year after Hialeah held its most recent Thoroughbred meet.

Calder, in Miami Gardens, Fla., Is eight miles west of Gulfstream, in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
Here are their schedules through June 30, 2012:

*Gulfstream is running through April 24. It will have racing Wednesdays through Sunday until April 3, and then Thursdays through Sundays until the end of its meet.

*Calder will open its 2011 meet April 25. It has  said it will run four days a week until June 30. In its final date filing, Calder said it will have racing Thursdays through Mondays most weeks from July 1 through Dec. 2.  The dates from Oct. 1 onward will be the track’s annual Tropical Meet.

*Gulfstream will open Dec. 3 2011 and run through April 8, 2012 for a total of 87 days. It will have racing Thursdays through Sundays in December, except Christmas Day.  It will have Wednesday through Sunday racing the remainder of its meet.

*Calder will begin its 2012 meet April 9. In its date filing, it said it will race Thursdays through Sundays for most of the period until June 30, 2012.

Speculation is already brewing over which track will race when starting July 1, 2012.  Questions will include whether Frank Stronach, chairman of Gulfstream and MID, will seek a November start for Gulfstream meets.

Calder has traditionally had a strong December schedule of graded stakes races. But it has reduced the number of those stakes every year since 2008. That year, amid disputes with horsemen’s groups, Calder went through several extended inter-state blackouts of its outgoing signal and of some incoming simulcast signals.  Since 2008, Calder’s handle has dropped each year as part of the industry’s overall drop in handle.

The Florida DPMW in 2003 revoked Hialeah’s Thoroughbred permit because it did not hold racing for two consecutive years.

Since 2009 it has had a Quarter Horse permit under which it can run a mixed meet with up to half its races as Thoroughbred races.  It has not yet run a mixed meet.

On March 1, Hialeah owner and chairman John Brunetti said the Gulfstream-Calder dispute and its outcome shows why he favors a return to regulated racing dates.

“It is quite obvious that they worked in concert,” Brunetti said. “This shows that these two tracks when forced can reach an accommodation.  It again makes you wonder why they could not reach an accommodation when there were three tracks.”

He added: “The industry did not know the schedule until the final day. This could happen every year if we still have deregulation of dates.”

The Florida Legislature will hold its annual session from March 8 through May 6. Brunetti said he hopes that legislators who are friendly to Hialeah will introduce bills that would grant Hialeah a new Thoroughbred license and restore regulated racing dates.

Hialeah plans to run its next Quarter Horse meet from Dec. 3, 2011 through Feb. 26, 2012 with racing Fridays through Sundays.

“I am leaning toward not running a mixed meet this year,” Brunetti said. “It could make matters worse if two tracks were competing with Thoroughbreds.”

For the short-term, trainers and owners are taking a “thank goodness it’s over” approach to the Gulfstream-Calder dispute.

In a statement Feb. 28, Sam Gordon, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said that at horsemen’s weekly meetings at Calder and Gulfstream “we maintained the position that any dates war would be detrimental to south Florida racing. We’re glad that both sides took our recommendations.”