Ohio Racing Dates Cut; HBPA Wants Assurances

A plan to reduce live racing dates in Ohio by more than 10% in an effort to keep the horse racing industry afloat may hinge on an agreement between three Thoroughbred tracks and the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The Ohio State Racing Commission at meeting Oct. 20 approved 2005 dates for seven racetracks. It marks the first time in recent memory regulators in any jurisdiction have slashed a substantial number of racing dates, which in general are rubber-stamped according to the wishes of tracks.

In total, there would be 388 Thoroughbred dates at three tracks, and 491 Standardbred dates at four tracks.

The mandate for a reduction came from racing commission chairman Scott Borgemenke, who earlier this year indicated it's life-and-death for racing in the Buckeye state. Purses and handle have dropped in face of competition for the gambling dollar in neighboring states. The original concept of greatly reducing dates by having one track operating at a time didn't fly.

Under the Thoroughbred dates approved by the commission, Thistledown near Cleveland would race 154 dates next year, down 17.6% from this year. Beulah Park near Columbus would race 135 dates, down 5.6%. River Downs near Cincinnati would race 99 dates, down 18.8%.

Beulah Park, however, would offer 106 more races under a plan endorsed by local horsemen. At Thistledown, the number of races would decline 19%, and at River Downs, 22%.

The schedule approved by the commission hinges on an agreement between the seven racetracks, the Ohio HBPA, and the Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association. At the end of the Oct. 20 meeting, all but Thistledown and the Ohio HBPA had signed the nine-party deal.

If the pact isn't approved before Nov. 2, the commission will hold a special meeting that day, and racing dates would be cut further to the minimum required by law.

"We're hopeful that's not going to be necessary," commission chairman Scott Borgemenke said. "This (proposal) is the best we could do, and people worked very hard on it. I do, however, think there is more room to give on this."

The Ohio HBPA is seeking a separate agreement with the three Thoroughbred tracks to ensure purse levels, as well as stabling and training. It also wants assurances a state-mandated common purse pool that divvies up simulcast revenue is frozen in 2005.

The purse pool is protected in the nine-party agreement, officials said.

Bob Reeves, an Ohio HBPA director, said horsemen are concerned about where additional purse money would go given the fewer number days at Thistledown and River Downs, where the number of races lost would be 257 and 196, respectively. Reeves, who noted Ohio is second to California in the number of live racing days, said the HBPA expects 2005 overnight purses to rise 15% at Thistledown and 20% at River Downs.

"We don't want the money going to stakes such as the Bassinet, Cradle (gr. III), and Ohio Derby (gr. II)," Reeves said. "When the first condition book comes out, we want to be sure we see an increase in purses. We're not asking to guarantee purses, but in the first book, we want to see something substantive."

The HBPA wants the three tracks to sign off on agreement. None of them have signed it, and during a break in the proceedings, River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian indicated he wouldn't.

"I don't want to sign any more agreements," Hanessian said. "I will say I will not add any stakes or increase purses for existing stakes. I'll sign that if they're so worried about it. I want to raise our minimum purse to $5,000 from $4,300."

Hanessian said at the end of the 2003 season, River Downs had a $900,000 overpayment, but when the 2004 meet ended on Labor Day, there was a $60,000 surplus for next year.

Bill Murphy, general manager of Magna Entertainment Corp.-owned Thistledown, said he probably would have no problem signing the HBPA agreement and planned to increase purses in the first condition book. He said he didn't sign the broader nine-party agreement because MEC attorneys must first look it over.

Jerry Knappenberger, who manages the OHHA, said his organization and the four harness tracks hammered out the nine-party deal the night before the Oct. 20 meeting. Thoroughbred interests saw it for the first time during the meeting.

An earlier proposal would have reduced harness dates even more, but Knappenberger said the Standardbred industry wanted to protect the year-round schedule at Northfield Park, which has a successful export business, and at least maintain purses at their 2004 levels. To compensate for the lost dates, the tracks will add races, he said.

"We're trying to bridge the gap until we get (video lottery terminals)," Knappenberger said.

As for Beulah Park, Reeves said horsemen there want to have more opportunities and race for less money per race.

"I personally still don't understand that," Borgemenke said.

Even though the three Thoroughbred tracks haven't signed off on the HBPA deal, a few individuals indicated they expect the situation to be resolved and the nine-party deal approved in the near term. Commissioner Norm Barron said the tracks and horsemen should be commended for agreeing to cut racing days given the circumstances in Ohio.