Crunch Time for Horsemen, Horses in Ohio

The clock is ticking on a deal that could keep horses racing in Ohio this winter.

With a little more than two weeks remaining before the scheduled shutdown of the barn area at Beulah Park, management and horsemen still have no deal to continue live racing in January. But developments on a national level could quickly turn things around.

Beulah Park and the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association have been involved in a dispute over advance deposit wagering revenue since October, when the fall meet began. Beulah Park in November received Ohio State Racing Commission approval for a 2009 schedule that drops its customary winter/spring Thoroughbred meet.

Lost wagering revenue isn’t the only concern. There are roughly 1,000 horses on the grounds, and a number of them may have no place to go should the barn area close Dec. 27 and racing not be held in January.

Beulah Park general manager Mike Weiss said there have been offers from ADW providers to horsemen for revenue from account wagering, but they haven’t responded. Weiss said as time goes by, Ohio horsemen, who are using the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group to assist in negotiations, may end up settling for a lot less.

Deals with ADW providers have been made by horsemen in California, where the Thoroughbred Owners of California is a strong THG supporter, and Louisiana, where the HBPA cut its own deal for signals and incensed some members of the THG.

“What has really been a sticking point as far as Beulah Park is concerned, is that as some of the bigger tracks have made (ADW) deals without the THG, Beulah Park isn’t as strong a signal for ADW providers (seeking content),” Weiss said. “Beulah Park and the horsemen already have lost dollars that are not recoverable.”

Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler said horsemen made an offer in writing for simulcast consent agreements but haven't heard back from management. The two sides have been very close to a deal on multiple occasions, but all ADW providers haven’t accepted the terms.

“It’s my belief the terms and conditions we laid out would be acceptable to Beulah Park, but whether we can obtain that from all four major ADWs is still in question,” Basler said. “With TVG, the terms and conditions are exactly the same as those approved two and a half years prior to (October of this year).”

On Dec. 10, the THG was scheduled to meet in Tucson, Ariz., during the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming, while Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment Corp., the two principals in TrackNet Media Group, were scheduled to meet in Louisville, Ky. The outcome of those meetings could lead to deals for not only Beulah Park but other tracks in the United States.

“It’s really not the tracks against horsemen,” Weiss said. “We’re in the same boat. It’s just a financially scary time.”

As for the Beulah Park horses that could be homeless in late December, Basler said the Ohio HBPA has contacted several organizations about horse placement in the worst case scenario. “I have serious concerns of the possibility there will be some unwanted horses if that situation arises,” he said.

Timing will be critical. Once the horses leave the backstretch, Beulah Park could have trouble getting them back should a deal be struck on ADW revenue. Also, officials have acknowledged the negatively publicity that could be generated at a time when the industry is focusing on equine health, safety, and care.

“If we got a deal today, and the racing commission was willing to hear our request for dates, there’s a chance we could race in January,” Weiss said Dec. 9.

“In order to run in January, it certainly would be in the horsemens's and Beulah Park’s interest to have a deal cut prior to the Dec. 19 Ohio State Racing Commission meeting,” Basler said. “If we don’t, the racing commission would have to hold a special hearing. It may be willing to do that, but (racing in January) may be tough, logistically.”

OSRC chairman Willie Koester indicated the commission is willing to work with the track and horsemen. “I’d be ecstatic if they cut an agreement,” he said.

As racing schedules stand now, River Downs will have no Thoroughbred racing in 2009; this year, it offered 102 days of racing. There is wiggle room for a change in plan for River Downs, which normally would open in mid-April.

“It’s our belief that an offer made by an ADW for Beulah Park would also apply to both of our other tracks,” Basler said. “At this point, we’re seeking a statewide deal for 2009 to provide stability.”

The third track, Thistledown, was approved for 91 racing days in 2009. An ADW deal could impact that schedule and plans by a prospective ownership group that’s now negotiating a purchase of the Cleveland-area track from MEC.