Thistledown, the Ohio racetrack that has shaved about 50 racing dates off its schedule since 2005, has requested another major reduction for 2008 to maintain profitability.
To lower operating costs, the Magna Entertainment Corp.-owned track requested just 91 racing dates for next year.Thistledown's calendar has been drastically reduced since 2005, when it ran the state-mandated 187 days. In 2006, the track raced 156 days; this year, it will race 136 days.
"Thistledown has to be profitable," said Brent Reitz, who replaced Bill Murphy as general manager of the track earlier this year. "We were instructed by Magna Entertainment that whatever we decide to do going forward, we have to make money."
Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said though the Ohio State Racing Commission would like to make a decision on the matter at its October meeting, it could be November or December before the dates are approved.
Basler explained that by law, Thistledown can't run less than the 187 state-mandated race dates unless there is a nine-party agreement between the state's three Thoroughbred racetracks, four harness tracks, the Ohio HBPA, and the Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association.
"There has been word from at least one harness track that they want changes in the terms of the nine-party agreement from the past two years if they're going to sign," Basler said. "So it's very much in the air as to whether the nine-party agreement will be signed or not."
Basler further noted there was a 2002 nine-party agreement that would allow the respective horsemen's organizations to reduce the number of race dates to 83% (155 days) of the mandated state minimum without any other parties agreeing. Thistledown could also go ahead with the 91 days without the nine-party agreement; however, in 2009, the track wouldn't be permitted to offer simulcasting.
"I think its been made relatively public that Thistledown is for sale, and I don't think without a nine-party agreement it becomes very feasible to run 91 days because of the fact it makes it un-sellable as a racetrack if there's no simulcasting in 2009," said Basler, referring to MEC's announcement earlier this year that it was looking to put some of its assets on the market.
Basler said the request to reduce the racing calendar to 91 days was strictly a Thistledown decision.
"(The HBPA) did a racing-dates survey and we came up with 144 days," he said. "Our position at this time is that we would seek 144 days, but we're willing to work with the management at Thistledown and Magna to try and find some solution. To be honest, the purse account at Thistledowns could handle 140 days. It's the operating expenses that Magna has told us is the reason they're seeking a date cut.
"If we drop as many days that Magna requested, guys would either leave the state or get out of the business entirely."
"I truly understand what the horsemen are going through--I understand why they want to run more," Reitz said. "It's just getting harder and harder for Thistledown because keeping the barn area open for eight or nine months is a drain on our expenses. We're part of Magna, which is part of a larger group that’s publicly traded company, and we have to answer to its shareholders. The bottom line is we have to make money, and we believe (racing) 91 days gives us the best shot at accomplishing that task."
The reduction of race dates at all Ohio tracks was pushed last year by former Ohio State Racing Commission chairman Norm Barron, who believes the industry must find ways to offer competitive purses without having the benefit of alternative gaming. Last fall, a racing industry-supported referendum that would have permitted video lottery terminals at Ohio tracks failed to pass.
Thistledown is facing increasing pressure as far as its horse population is concerned. Presque Isle Downs, located near Erie, Pa., about two hours from Thistledown will race 100 days next year during the time Thistledown is open.