Smooth Air won the 2008 Ohio Derby.

Smooth Air won the 2008 Ohio Derby.

JJ Zamaiko

Racing Commission: Cut Dates, Run Ohio Derby

The grade II Ohio Derby will be run this year under racing commission order.

The Ohio State Racing Commission Aug. 20 brought the grade II Ohio Derby back to the schedule this year by ordering a reduction of five live racing days at Thistledown, traditional host for the only graded stakes in the Buckeye State.

The unusual action came because Thistledown and the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association have been unable to reach an agreement on the race, which this year will carry a purse of $150,000, the minimum allowed for a grade II event. The Ohio Derby was dropped earlier this year, but its return has been discussed for months at the urging of the OSRC.

“We’ve been beating this horse a long time,” OSRC chairman Willie Koester told Thistledown officials at the commission meeting. “It’s a drop-dead date now. I don’t care if you run the race on Christmas Day and put a wreath around the winner.”

The Ohio Derby is now scheduled for Oct. 3, the day of the Best of Ohio championship series for state-bred horses. Thistledown general manager Brent Reitz said he would need at least six weeks notice to reinstate the race, and the clock is ticking.

“Being a racing fan, I realize the late notice can affect the field, but this is the 75th anniversary of the Ohio Derby,” Koester said. “Hopefully when better days come (to Ohio racing), we’ll get more graded races in Ohio.”

Under a directive from Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, Ohio tracks can install video lottery terminals that will be operated by the Ohio Lottery. Movement on the plan has been stalled pending a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court after legal action opposing the VLT plan was filed.

As of Aug. 20, Thoroughbred horsemen and tracks had no deal on the percentage of VLT revenue that will go to purses and breed development. The governor’s directive and enabling legislation made no mention of the horsemen’s cut.

Reitz said the Ohio HBPA offered to amend its 2009 contract with the track and run the Ohio Derby as long as the $150,000 didn’t come out of the purse account. That would have meant Thistledown, owned by bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp. and for sale, would have picked up the tab.

“Magna and Thistledown do not believe it’s their responsibility to pay for the race,” Reitz told the commission. “It should come out of the purse account.”

In order to do so, racing dates must be cut. The commission settled on five days; Reitz said after the meeting he would have to discuss the development with MEC before offering any details.

Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler attended the Aug. 20 OSRC but had an appointment and left before the Ohio Derby was discussed. Commissioner Tom Zaino said he left a message on Basler’s cell phone but hadn’t heard back.

Zaino and other commissioners noted the OSRC had the authority to take the action because Thistledown and the horsemen’s group had assured regulators the Ohio Derby would be run in 2009. Reitz expressed concern the commission’s action would amount to a violation of the 2009 contract between Thistledown and the Ohio HBPA at a time when the track is being sold.

“I believe this is a best-interests-of-Ohio-horse-racing issue,” OSRC deputy director John Izzo said. “I believe we have it on the record that the horsemen promised the commission the Ohio Derby would be run. I don’t think the commission believed Magna would be eating $150,000 to make this happen.”

Izzo said the commission’s action could be considered a penalty or “remedial” in nature. He also said there remains a small window of time for the track and horsemen to negotiate changes in the 2009 contract.