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Calder Opens First Live Meet with Slots

Calder Race Course opens its first live meet enhanced with slots April 25.

Calder Casino & Race Course will open its 40th racing season April 25, with its first combination of slot machines and live Thoroughbred racing.

The opening day feature at the Miami Gardens, Fla., track will be the Miami Mile Handicap (gr. IIIT), for 3-year-olds and up.  It will be the 24th renewal of that race, and the first on a familiar list of 15 graded stakes that Calder has scheduled for its season that will run through Jan. 3, 2011.

Otherwise, Calder has made some changes that management of the track and its parent Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) are hoping will lead to a financial rebound for Calder’s racing.

Most notable and visible is the casino, located west of the clubhouse building, that Calder opened on Jan. 22. The Calder casino, built for $85 million, has 1,245 Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Calder last year changed its name from Calder Race Course. And in a change that is not popular with many horsemen, the large signs on the clubhouse building now read just “Calder Casino.” But trainers and owners are welcoming the more than $4.8 million that Calder’s slot machines are expected to contribute to overnight purses this year.

“The casino will add important support and help us in our goal of providing a consistent revenue stream for our horsemen, so that they will have confidence about racing at Calder,” John Marshall, Calder’s vice president and general manager of racing operations, said on April 21.

Calder’s agreement with the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association calls for that amount of slots revenue to annually go into purses through 2012.

A gaming law awaiting the expected signature of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist would reduce the state tax rate on slot machine revenues from 50% to 35% at Calder, Gulfstream Park and the three other southeast Florida pari-mutuels that have slot machines. The lower rate would begin on July 1, 2010.

The agreement with the Florida HBPA requires Calder to pay additional slots revenues to purses based on a percentage of those revenues if the slots tax rate is cut to 35%. Marshall estimates that about $28,000 in slots revenues will go to purses through June 30, and that payments will be about $33,000 per day for the remainder of 2010.

The money from slots will enable Calder to set a target of $175,000 per day in overnight purses for 2010, Marshall said.

Last year, Calder had a goal of averaging $160,000 per day in overnight purses.  It met that target until October, when it announced a cut of 15%. Calder was among many U.S. tracks that cut purses amid declines in handle.

“We will start out the meet in the one sixties ($160,000 or more) and hope it will grow,“ Marshall said. “Our goal is to endure any downtrends and avoid having to make any purse cuts.”

Calder ended 2009 with a zero balance in its purse account, Marshall said.

It will start its eight-month race season with an underpayment of about $1.5 million of money from this year’s simulcasting and slot machines, he said.

Kent Stirling, the Florida HPBA’s executive director, said he thinks Calder is “being conservative” with its purse targets.

“I am optimistic that they will hit the target and that as the meet goes on it will become higher, maybe $190,000,” he said.

Stirling noted that Calder’s slots revenues have been growing since March.

Marshall said he expects that Calder’s casino, which has been building a customer base, will continue to increase revenues after the race meet begins. But he is not projecting how much cross-play Calder will receive from race bettors and slots players.

According to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, Calder had $2.3 million in pre-tax slots revenues during the first 11 days of April. That placed it second among South Florida pari-mutuel casinos—behind $3.3 million at harness track Isle Racing & Casino at Pompano Park. 

Calder’s average daily revenue per machine for that period was $166,000—fourth in the South Florida market.  Calder’s daily average was $149,000 in March.

Last October, Calder added a poker room in its clubhouse building.

“Our goal is to get people to visit us, and let them make a choice of gaming,” Marshall said.

In cross-promotions, Calder plans to begin a series of free wagering vouchers for casino patrons. On May 1, it will have several parties in the casino with promotions related to its simulcast of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

As in 2009, Calder is opening its meet with all necessary contracts signed with the Florida HBPA.

However in 2008, contract disputes that pitted Calder and CDI against the Florida HBPA kept Calder from sending simulcasts to tracks outside Florida and from receiving about a dozen tracks’ signals for 10 weeks. The disputes also prevented most major ADWs from taking bets on Calder races for almost the entire meet and led Calder to cut overnight purses several times and cancel more than a dozen late-year stakes.

In December 2009, after a horse that had been stabled at the track died from equine herpes virus (EHV-1), Calder quarantined three barns for three weeks and would not let horses from other tracks and training facilities come in to race for two weeks. Amid the quarantine, Calder canceled two graded stakes that were scheduled for Dec. 5.

Amid those difficulties Calder’s all-sources handle fell from $923 million in 2007 to $650 million in 2008, according to CDI’s reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Calder had all-sources handle of $673 million in 2009, according to those reports.

Marshall said Calder hopes 2010 will be a year “when we return to where we were several years ago.”

To help in that goal of gaining and keeping bettors, Calder has installed more than 200 high-definition flat screen TVs at its track and what it said are participating simulcast centers in Florida and other states.

“You will have a sharper view and be able to pick out more things in races,” Marshall said.

With construction finished on the casino and in parking lots, entering Calder also will be much easier and clearer than last year at the main entrance on N.W. 27th Avenue.

Calder will run its "Calder Meet" through Oct. 17. It will operate its "Tropical Meet" from Oct. 21 through Jan. 3.

The track will have live racing on Thursdays through Sundays until Nov. 7. It will add Mondays, going to five-day race weeks, beginning on Nov. 11.  During the Calder meet, it will have live racing on four Monday holidays.

For the Calder Meet, the first post time has been moved to 1:10 p.m., from previous years’ 12:40 p.m.  First post for the Tropical Meet will remain 12:25 p.m.

Calder has scheduled a combined 50 stakes for the two meets.

After the Miami Mile, Calder’s schedule shows no stakes until the Memorial Day Handicap (gr. III) on May 31.

Calder will consider adding some overnight stakes, in the $50,000 range, in May and later if early weeks’ purses meet projections, Marshall said.

Highlights include these traditional multiple stakes Saturdays:

* July 10—Summit of Speed, with four graded stakes at six furlongs including the Princess Rooney (gr. 1) for fillies and mares 4-years-old and up.

* Oct. 16—Festival of the Sun, with seven stakes including the two final legs of the Florida Stallion Stakes series for 2-year-olds.

* Nov. 13—Florida Million, with eight stakes for Florida-breds.