Conflict Threatens 2008 Thistledown Meet

The Ohio HBPA and Thistledown management haven't struck a deal on racing dates.

The clock is ticking on negotiations between the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Thistledown, the Cleveland-area racetrack whose 2008 Thoroughbred meet is in jeopardy because of a conflict over racing dates.

Thistledown is scheduled to open May 1 for 111 racing days this year. The Magna Entertainment Corp.-owned track doesn’t have an agreement with the Ohio HBPA, which for months has said it wants more racing dates.

Thistledown as recently in 2005 offered 187 days of racing, but declines in total pari-mutuel handle led the track and others in Ohio to seek fewer dates to maintain purses. Thistledown had requested 91 days for 2008; the Ohio HBPA wanted at least 136.

The two sides met again March 5 in Columbus, the state capital, but failed to strike a deal. Thistledown, according to reports, is now willing to race 122 days this year, but the horsemen want more.

Word is circulating that financially-battered MEC could scrap live racing at Thistledown if a deal on dates isn’t reached by March 17. Complicating the situation is the fact Thistledown is for sale, and there has been no indication a purchaser has been found.

In its 2007 year-end earnings report, MEC included Thistledown among its "discontinued operations."

In addition, state law says Thistledown must race 155 days this year to maintain rights to offer full-card simulcasts in 2009. Any track that can't offer simulcasts is an even harder sell on the market.

Bob Roberts, a Thistledown spokesman, said March 6 racing office personnel have been told not to report to work March 10, the day the office is scheduled to open. In addition, no more stall applications will be sent to horsemen, and those that have been received will be returned, he said.

Roberts said track management “met with horsemen (March 5) in Columbus and failed to come up with an agreement. They are still negotiating with horsemen, but now there is a deadline.”

The deadline of March 17 coincides with the next Ohio State Racing Commission meeting. The conflict over dates has been discussed by commissioners in the past but they have been unable to facilitate a resolution.

When asked March 6 if MEC is threatening to close Thistledown, Bob Reeves, a member of the Ohio HBPA board of directors, said: “I can’t comment on that.” He offered no details on recent developments.

“It’s common knowledge the Ohio HBPA has not reached a deal on dates with Thistledown,” Reeves said. “People can read into the negotiations, but all we can say is talks are ongoing.”

Closure of Thistledown would be a major blow to Ohio Thoroughbred racing, which already is taking a beating. Statewide handle so far this year is down 12% in keeping with a disturbing trend that began earlier in the decade.