Prominent Horsemen Denied Stalls at River Downs

Several politically active horsemen in Ohio are considering legal action after receiving word they wouldn't get stalls for their racehorses at the upcoming River Downs meet.

Jim Morgan, the all-time stakes-winning trainer in Ohio, and Rolf Obrecht and Raymond "Pat" Buse, both owner/breeders, were notified either directly or indirectly of the decision by River Downs, which opens April 9. Their horses will be permitted to race at the Cincinnati-area track.

Morgan, currently based at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky, said he received notice from River Downs. Obrecht, who has about 15 horses at Turfway, said his trainers were informed they could have stalls but not for any horses he owns. Morgan trains for Buse and other prominent owner/breeders in Kentucky and Ohio.

Morgan and Obrecht said they heard the decision by River Downs was tied to politics, but that couldn't be confirmed. River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment, and a track spokesman said he knew nothing about the situation.

Some in the Ohio racing industry claim Morgan, Obrecht, and Buse used influence to thwart racetrack gaming legislation in the state. Morgan and Obrecht said March 19 they fully support the concept of racetrack gaming but not the revenue splits agreed upon by the racing industry.

As written, the Ohio bill to authorize video lottery terminals would funnel 7.5% of revenue to purses, the lowest percentage of any racino state in the country and roughly half the national average. There remains an outside chance the bill could be revisited soon in an attempt to get the VLT question on the November ballot.

"We're not against VLTs," Obrecht said. "We just told everybody it's a (lousy) deal (for horsemen)."

Morgan, leading trainer at two of the last four River Downs meets, said the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association board of directors probably would meet the week of March 22 to discuss the developments. When trainers at Tampa Bay Downs were denied stalls a few years ago, other horsemen's associations took action against the track.

The Ohio HBPA recently struck a deal on account-wagering revenue with Beulah Park after months of conflict, and has plans to negotiate with River Downs, according to board member Bob Reeves. Morgan indicated that issue might be tied to the track's decision on stalls.

"It will play out in the next 10 days or two weeks," Morgan said. "It's just another example of arbitrary vindictiveness by a racetrack. It's the first time I've been denied stalls anywhere. The tracks are taking in all this money in tax abatements, but you can't get a stall for an Ohio-bred."

Morgan, who usually has 20 to 30 horses--many of them Ohio-breds--at River Downs, said he and Buse have hired attorneys. Obrecht, who lives just minutes from River Downs and also races Ohio-breds, said he might have to do the same.

"We're probably going to have to go that route, too," said Obrecht, who plans to ask the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners to adopt a resolution in support of the horsemen at its board meeting March 27. "It's just absolutely ridiculous."

Though unrelated to the Ohio developments, Turfway, which closes for live racing April 1, is considering keeping its racetrack and barn area open for training through the spring and summer. The level of interest by horsemen will determine the outcome.

Turfway is located about 20 minutes from River Downs, which races through Labor Day, and about 90 minutes from Indiana Downs, which opens for Thoroughbred racing April 16.