Calder Impasse: Let's Meet Tomorrow

At a June 9 meeting, Florida horseman's group and CDI agree to meet again...tomorrow

Following a June 9 meeting, officials of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Churchill Downs Inc. plan to meet again June 10 in an effort to resolve a costly contracts dispute at CDI-owned Calder Race Course.

Neither side would provide details of proposals they considered at the meeting in South Florida, other than noting that future slot machine revenue at the Miami Gardens, Fla., track was a major topic. But Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling said he believes the parties made progress at the meeting, their first since May 21.

“We want to keep negotiations going and reach agreements that benefit all parties and, obviously, that includes the fans,” CDI spokesman Kevin Flannery said.

While contract negotiations have stalled, Calder opened its meet April 21 and has been battered by a huge blackout of incoming and outgoing simulcast signals, purse cuts, and a more than a 70% decline in all-sources handle. Amid those problems, the pace at which owners are shipping horses from Calder is increasing, and some trainers are beginning to reduce their staffs.

The Florida HBPA has said it will not sign a 2008 purse contract for Calder without also signing a contract on slots revenue. CDI maintains that a slots contract is not necessary this year. The company has pointed out that it has not announced plans for a possible casino at Calder, and that the track will not have slot machines until 2009 at the earliest.

Except for New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., Calder does not have  2008 contracts with advance deposit wagering companies. The Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group is negotiating ADW contracts for the Florida HBPA and horsemen in several other states.

Dan Hurtak and Kathleen O’Connell are among trainers who have had owners send some horses to tracks in northern states. Both are former Florida HBPA directors.

Hurtak is among what apparently is the first group of Calder trainers to reduce their staffs. Early this month, he cut his staff from 30 to 26. Costs of keeping and caring for a horse at Calder still average about $3,000 a month, even with lower purses, Hurtak said.

Ken Dunn, Calder’s former president who remains its top on-site executive, said June 4 that about 200 horses had been shipped from the track. Owners have shipped in others, mostly 2-year olds, but Dunn did not have a precise number. Calder has stalls for about 1,850 horses and usually is at full capacity in June.

Hurtak said that from the start of talks, he has believed it is not necessary for the Florida HBPA to have a slots agreement this year because Calder will not have slot machines in 2008. Prolonged negotiations have left Calder and the Florida HBPA in a situation “where it will be very difficult to recoup (this year’s) losses.” said Hurtak, who has won five Calder training titles.

Hurtak is considering sending some horses to Delaware Park, Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack, or Monmouth Park. All have higher purses than Calder.

Those differences are now larger, because Calder April 27 cut its average daily overnight purses by 30%, and on May 9 announced purse cuts for many of its stakes. Through June 1, the first 25 days of its season, Calder’s average daily purses were $183,871 including stakes. In 2007, the average for the same period was $218,107.

Trainers are “a resilient group,” and are sacrificing some income now by insisting on what they consider a fair share of future slots revenue and a fairer share of ADW revenue, O’Connell said. Last year, O'Connell tied for second in wins at the six-month Calder meet, and tied for third at the two-month Tropical meet.

Using authority under the Interstate Horseracing Act for situations in which a track does not have contracts, the Florida HBPA is preventing Calder from sending its signal to tracks outside Florida and to ADWs. New York City OTB had a previous contract.

Horsemen in eight states are not permitting tracks to send signals to Calder, and thus export them to other pari-mutuel facilities in Florida.

As of June 8, Calder was not receiving the signals of 10 tracks. They are Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course, River Downs, Beulah Park, Thistledown, Delaware Park, Presque Isle Downs & Casino, Lone Star Park, Yavapai Downs, and Colonial Downs.

Calder has kept all purses at $100,000 for the four non-graded sprint stakes on its June 14 card. Those stakes are partly funded by the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association. Calder is promoting that card as a preview of its July 12 Summit of Speed. But it has cut purses for the Summit’s six stakes, including its four graded stakes.