In Ohio, Serious Proposal for Serious Times

Racetracks and horsemen's groups are considering a proposal by the chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission to radically reduce live racing dates--several hundred could be eliminated--in order to boost purses and increase field size in 2005.

The plan offered by Scott Borgemenke, who took over as chairman of the regulatory agency earlier this year, has supporters and detractors. Ohio has three Thoroughbred tracks, at least two of which operate simultaneously. For about three weeks each year, all three are open.

"There are 1,530 more races in Ohio than Kentucky this year," said trainer Jim Morgan, a board member of the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "I think that speaks for itself. It's too much racing, and it's bad racing that runs the fans off. The tracks might be doing fair business, but horsemen aren't getting enough revenue.

"I don't know the details, but it's something that should be looked at long and hard."

The proposal calls for a reduction in live dates for Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing. It would create a circuit whereby only one track was open at a time, at least on the Thoroughbred side.

Only from January through March is one Thoroughbred track, Beulah Park, open. Thistledown opens in April and runs through December, while River Downs opens in mid-April and races through Labor Day.

"It makes sense because it's getting harder and harder to compete for horses," River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian said. "One way to increase purses is to decrease the number of races but have the same amount of purse money. Kentucky has always had the perfect situation--one track open at a time with revenue sharing. Ohio might have hybrid sharing with both breeds."

Hanessian said any schedule remains up in the air, but he noted River Downs could change its schedule only so much because of live racing 20 minutes away at Turfway Park in Kentucky. Turfway races in September, so River Downs would continue to end its meet on Labor Day and lop off days at the front of its meet.

Thistledown, Hanessian said, might have to offer two meets, one in the spring and one in the fall. Late fall and winter racing would go to Beulah Park.

River Downs is the only Ohio track with a turf course. Thistledown is hampered by its lack of a grass course because it competes with Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia, which offers turf racing for three months each year. When Mountaineer's parent company opens a racino in Erie, Pa., with summer racing, Thistledown, located about 90 minutes away, will face even more competition.

Among the issues on the table are stabling and shipping of horses. Thistledown and River Downs are located about four hours apart, with Beulah Park located in between.

Borgemenke couldn't be immediately reached for comment. But Norm Barron, a member of the racing commission, said the initial response to the proposal has been positive.

"We're talking to the horsemen and permit-holders to reduce live racing to promote bigger purses," Barron said. "It's difficult to do in Ohio because of the number of tracks. It's an initiative being promoted by the commission, but it requires, because of statute, an agreement between nine entities.

"Personally, I think it's something we absolutely have to have."

The parties are the three Thoroughbred tracks, four harness tracks, Ohio HBPA, and Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association.

An important part of the proposal is a one-year moratorium on the 2004 percentages for the common purse pool that divvies up dark-day simulcast revenue. The pool is tied to live racing dates--the more live racing, the larger percentage of revenue a track receives. Under the statute, money earned at one track shifts to another, regardless of breed.

Barron said the percentage would be frozen for one year and then revisited. He noted the situation could change should Ohio tracks win approval for video lottery terminals.

Ohio racing has taken a beating from neighboring states with racetracks that benefit from alternative gaming revenue. Handle and purses continue to decline, though racing commission figures indicate a slight turnaround for Thoroughbred racing.

Through Aug. 28, total Thoroughbred handle was $179.8 million, down only 4.6% from the same period in 2003. Standardbred handle of $154.3 million was down 9.3% from the corresponding period.

The Ohio HBPA earlier this year struck deals with account wagering providers on revenue splits. Bob Reeves, who chairs the Ohio HBPA Purses and Wagering Committee, said he expects that $1 million would be added to purse accounts by the end of 2005.