At Thistledown, More Horses Mean Bump in Handle

Thistledown's plan to revamp its racing program to compete for horses with nearby Mountaineer Park in West Virginia has paid off, at least very early in its 2001 meet.

The Cleveland, Ohio-area racetrack opened April 6 with full fields and a 45% increase in out-of-state handle on its live product. On opening day, out-of-state handle on seven live races was $542,993, compared with $374,511 on opening day in 2000. Total handle on the live product was $824,893, up from $664,427 the same day last year. On-track attendance of 4,938 was about even with last year.

Track general manager Bill Murphy said the increase in field size had much to do with the spike in handle. On opening day, there were 9.5 horses per race; on April 7, the figure was 9.1.

The track, owned by Magna Entertainment, lowered its minimum claiming price to $3,500, but upped its minimum purse to $7,000. Purses for $3,500 to $10,000 claiming races are up almost 15% from last year.

The shift was brought about by competition from nearby Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, where the minimum purse is $9,300 for a $4,000 claimer. Thistledown generated an additional $475,000 for overnight purses when it discontinued its open stakes schedule in a one-year experiment. The grade II Ohio Derby will be run, but this year it's scheduled for September.

Thistledown racing secretary Bill Couch said in a recent interview 2001 marked the first time in 10 years the track received more stall applications that it has stalls. There were 1,700 applications for the track's 1,300 stalls, he said.

"We recruited heavily in Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and at Tampa Bay," Crouch said. "There are even some horses from California. A lot of guys have been looking to go east."

Crouch said an objective was to increase field size. "We can't survive on six-horse fields," he said.

In Ohio, two tracks usually split the daily racing program. For example, Thistledown will run seven races, and either Beulah Park or River Downs seven races. When the "7&7" started in the early 1990s, it was designed to offer patrons more wagering opportunities in the days when full-card simulcasting wasn't permitted in Ohio. Now, the tracks hope the 14-race programs are attractive nationally as a simulcast product.