Trend of Fewer Racing Dates Continues in Ohio

Ohio racetracks have requested fewer racing dates for the coming year.

Total racing dates would continue to drop under 2011 requests submitted by Ohio’s seven racetracks Aug. 19.

Three Thoroughbred tracks requested a total of 30 fewer days of live racing, with River Downs asking for the largest reduction of 26 days. Beulah Park requested four fewer days, while Thistledown requested the same number it did for 2010.

Total harness dates would drop by 27 under the proposals. Only two tracks—Beulah Park and Northfield Park, a harness facility—would meet the legislated minimum in order to maintain simulcast licenses. A two-party agreement with horsemen is required for full-card simulcasts to continue with less than the legislated minimum of dates.

Ohio State Racing Commission chairman Willie Koester said Aug. 19 only two of the seven tracks have two-party agreements in place, though tracks and horsemen have until December to strike deals.

River Downs near Cincinnati attempted to reduce dates this year but was rebuffed by the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The track wraps up a 104-day meet (107 counting Quarter Horse races) Labor Day.

River Downs applied for 78 Thoroughbred dates and three Quarter Horse dates for next year.

“Business has been awful and our fields are short,” River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian said, noting he would like to race four days a week instead of five. “The horsemen didn’t approve fewer dates for this year. I told them about (the plan for 2011) but they haven’t given me approval.”

Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler said the organization’s board of directors hasn’t yet addressed the issue; dates were submitted to the OSRC Aug. 16 and will be further discussed in September.

Beulah Park, purchased by Penn National Gaming Inc. this year, requested 125 days of live racing, above the legislated minimum as usual. Thistledown, recently purchased by Harrah’s Entertainment, asked for 122 days—the same number as last year but well below the legislated minimum of 187.

The Ohio HBPA and Thistledown, however, were able to sign a two-party agreement for 2010.

Ohio racing has been hit by ongoing double-digit declines in pari-mutuel handle and competition from neighboring states in which tracks have alternative gaming. As a result, the number of racing days continues to fall in an effort to maintain purses.

In the past 20 years, total racing dates per year have gone from 1,086 to 744, according to OSRC statistics. Thoroughbred dates, which peaked at 492 (1994) during the period, dropped to 358 in 2010. Harness dates, at a high of 619 in 1998, totaled 386 last year.

Tom Aldrich, general manager of Northfield Park near Cleveland, said the track again requested 213 days of live racing but told the OSRC he would request a reduction depending on how 2011 goes.

"I'm not going to reduce purses," Aldrich said. "They're already low enough. We want to sustain live racing but our business model is unraveling."

The racing dates issue in Ohio is shadowed by new track owners in the form of casino companies and some movement in the state toward implementing racetrack video lottery terminals operated by the Ohio Lottery. Industry officials seem positive about the prospect, but there has been no public indication when the plan will move forward.