River Downs

River Downs

Christine A. Wittmer

River Downs Situation Described as 'Horrible'

River Downs is preparing for the worst, but is hoping for a deal with horsemen.

Absent an agreement with horsemen, River Downs will begin its live meet April 16 with a minimum purse of $3,200, the lowest in almost two decades, in yet another sign of a struggling Ohio horse racing industry.

“It’s awful. It’s horrible,” River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian said after an Ohio State Racing Commission meeting March 26.

The OSRC granted River Downs 104 racing dates for 2010 and, unless the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association agrees, the Cincinnati-area track can’t cut days. Hanessian said that ideally, he’d like to race 80 days and keep purses at 2009 levels.

The Ohio HBPA board of directors has twice voted to shoot down the reduction in dates, though the second vote was said to be 6-5. Hanessian said he’s not done negotiating.

“We’re going to go by the condition book we’ve prepared with lower purses,” Hanessian said. “Hopefully, we’ll meet with the horsemen in two or three weeks, (and if they approve the reduction), increase purses to an acceptable level.

“(Ohio HBPA leadership) wanted us to address the local horsemen, and said they would abide by their vote.”

The Ohio HBPA represents all Thoroughbred horsemen in the state, but the three tracks have distinct groups of trainers. Many River Downs horsemen also race in neighboring Kentucky, where Turfway Park cut back from five- to three- and four-day weeks this year.

There is a faction of Ohio horsemen that would rather run more days for less money.

Hanessian would like to race four days a week instead of five. The River Downs meet extends through Labor Day.

“We have had discussions with River Downs,” Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler said. “At this point, we don’t have an agreement with River Downs. I’m not going to say anything else at this point.”

A cut in days is no guarantee purses will spike. Tracks that race fewer live days get less money from a statewide pool of dark-day simulcast revenue; River Downs has come up on the short end of the stick since the law took effect in 1996.

River Downs can race without the agreement, but if there is no two-party deal, the track won’t be able to import full-card simulcasts in 2011 under Ohio statute.

The OSRC took River Downs to task for not having a condition book out three weeks before opening day. At previous meetings, commissioners have expressed frustration with River Downs and other Ohio racetracks, which are notoriously late in submitting requests for dates and signing horsemen’s agreements.

OSRC chairman Willie Koester acknowledged the difficulties but said in his opinion, the commission would approve a reduction in dates if both sides agreed, even after the meet begins.

“Whatever they agree on, I think it would get done,” Koester said.

The OSRC gave standard approval for the River Downs meet with the condition a few positions are filled before April 16. There had been hope by some owners and trainers that River Downs would tinker with its schedule and offer twilight racing on Fridays in an effort to spur on-track business, but that may hinge on the reduction in dates.

Basler and Thistledown general manager Brent Reitz said they have a two-party agreement in place for the Cleveland-area track’s 122-day meet that begins April 23.

Wagering declines in Ohio continue this year. Through March 20, simulcast handle at River Downs was $6.73 million, down 12.4% from the same period in 2009. Overall, handle at Beulah Park, River Downs, and Thistledown is down 15.2% from the same period last year.