Optimism Prevails as Calder Opens

Optimism Prevails as Calder Opens
Photo: Jim Lisa Photos
Calder opens their 2009 meet on April 24.

Calder Race Course will open its eight-month season April 24, with track officials and South Florida horsemen hoping for a big rebound from a problem-filled 2008.
That expected comeback in attendance and in all-sources wagering could be first evident on April 25, the meet’s opening Saturday, when Calder will have two graded stakes and two overnight stakes with some top local horses.
During its season that will run through Jan. 2, 2010, Calder will have larger purses than in recent years for its major 2-year-old stakes and for many other juvenile races. Calder and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners Association have combined in providing funds for those increases.
In addition, Calder has a mid-May target to begin site work for its planned $85 million, 100,000 square-foot casino that will be adjacent and connected to its grandstand/clubhouse building.
The Miami Gardens, Fla., track and its parent Churchill Downs Inc. plan to open the casino, with Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines “about 10 days before the Super Bowl,” said Tom O’Donnell, the track’s president. The upcoming NFL season’s Super Bowl will be on Feb. 7 at Dolphin Stadium, less than  a mile south of Calder.
But the main reason Calder and the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association are optimistic is that they have signed all required 2009 contracts on purses, out-of-state simulcasting and advance deposit wagering.
YouBet.com, TwinSpires.com and XpressBet.com are among ADWs that will carry Calder throughout its Calder meet and its Tropical meet.
With contracts in place, Calder will have “a consistent product” for trainers and owners and for bettors around the country, said John Marshall, the track’s vice president and manager for racing.
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 its entire meet, and led Calder to cut overnight purses several times and cancel more than a dozen late-year stakes.
Amid a season that some observers likened to a tsunami, Calder’s all-sources handle fell 30%.  According to CDI reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Calder had all-sources handle of $923 million in 2007 and $650 million in 2008.
But the atmosphere at Calder has been all sunshine since April 16, when Calder and the Florida HPBA announced the signing of a purse contract for the track’s 2009 Calder Meet and its Tropical Meet. The parties signed ADW and simulcast contracts last December.
“Getting all of the contracts signed this year is critically important,“ said Bill White, who has won 15 training titles at meets at Calder.
“What happened last year created a lot of confusion,” said White, a former director of the Florida HPBA. “Now, owners have an idea of what the purse structure will be.”
At a reception at Calder on the evening of April 16, O’Donnell and Florida HBPA president Sam Gordon spoke of a renewal of the long-time partnership between the track and its horsemen.
At that event and in an April 21 meeting with The Blood-Horse, O’Donnell emphasized Calder’s “Racing into the Future” slogan for 2009  and its plans to combine racing with a new casino.
“We are not looking at just building a casino, but also in improving the existing environment.” he said. “Racing will be just as large and important here as the casino.”
Starting this summer, Calder plans to begin a series of renovations on several floors of its 38-year old building,  The track is not yet ready to release details, O’Donnell said.
Calder plans to build its casino in a portion of the parking lot on the west side of its building. The track’s grandstand faces north.
“We will take steps to minimize any inconveniences,“ O’Donnell said. He added that Calder will continue to have a sufficient number of parking places.
Calder would join Gulfstream Park, harness track The Isle Racing & Casino at Pompano Park and Greyhound track Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming as South Florida pari-mutuels with casinos.
Florida allows casinos for pari-mutuels only in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. They pay a 50% state tax on slot machine revenues.
The Florida legislature is considering bills that would reduce that tax rate to 35%. The legislature will end its 2009 regular session May 1.
“Naturally, we would like the legislature to lower the tax rate,” O’Donnell said.
But he added that “our plans are in place” to begin work on a casino in mid-May regardless of any action the legislature takes or does not take.
Calder hired O’Donnell and Marshall last fall--following several months when the track did not have a president.
Last April, CDI announced that Ken Dunn, who had been Calder’s president since 1991, would leave that post and the company in August.
O’Donnell previously was a consultant for Heller Gaming & Entertainment, and before that spent 18 years in management with Harrah’s Entertainment.
Marshall came to Calder from The Meadows Racetrack, where he was vice president and general manager. The Meadows is a harness track in Washington, Pa.
“We are letting people know that Calder is back, and we are as strong as we have ever been,” Marshall said.
Calder is doing that with a local advertising and marketing campaign that, compared with previous years, is spread out more evenly over its 37-week season. Previously, Calder’s advertising was primarily for its opening week and major stakes Saturdays.
Calder plans to have newspaper, radio and TV ads throughout its meet and has its first billboard ads.
Meanwhile, Marshall said he has met with and is spreading his “we are back” message to some large bettors who stopped coming to Calder last year after simulcast and ADW blackouts led to smaller pools.
Calder will hold its Calder meet from April 24 to Oct. 21 and its Tropical meet from Oct. 22 to Jan. 2, 2010.  Gulfstream Park will then hold its 2010 meet from Jan. 3 to April 24.
Calder will have a daily post time of 12:40 p.m.
It will have live racing from Fridays through Sundays for its first two weeks, and run from Thursdays to Mondays from May 7 through the remainder of that month.
Calder will have live racing from Thursdays through Sundays in June, July and August. The track will shift to Fridays through Mondays in September. It will begin a Thursdays through Mondays schedule in October.
Calder has stalls for about 1,800 horses. Marshall said the space is close to being filled and will soon reach capacity with 2-years being shipped in from the Ocala area.
Marshall said Calder hopes to average about 8.5 horses per race for its season. A field size number for last year was not readily available.
Calder last Sept. 12 cut its average daily overnight purses from $180,000 to $150,000, after lower-than-projected handle resulted in an overpayment into the purse account for the two preceding months.
On April 7, Marshall told The Blood-Horse that Calder in 2009 expects to maintain daily average purses in the range of $160,000 for overnights and of  $190,000 including stakes.
Calder’s April  25 graded stakes are the La Prevoyante (gr. IIT), at 1 ½ miles for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up, and the Miami Mile (gr. IIT) for 3-year-olds and up.
Calder will hold its Summit of Speed, with four graded sprint stakes, on July 11 and its Festival of the Sun on Oct. 17.
The Festival includes the In Reality and My Charmer stakes, the final two legs of the Florida Stallion Stakes series for 2-year-olds.
On Feb. 11, Calder and the Florida TBOA each said they will add $100,000 in purse money for that six-race series. Total 2008 purses were $1.3 million for those races. Purses for each 2009 race have not yet been determined.
On April 20, the Florida TBOA announced additional awards that resulted in Calder racing purses from $50,000 to $100,000 for six of its stakes for Florida-bred 2-year-olds.
In another change, Calder has converted its ground floor Blinkers restaurant to a lounge area for employees and a work area for horsemen, with computers and fax machines.

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