Tampa Bay Downs Shuts Out National Mediator

An attempt by the nation's leading horsemen's group to mediate a prolonged contract dispute at Tampa Bay Downs was thwarted Wednesday.

Rick Hiles, president of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, visited the Oldsmar, Fla., racetrack hoping to talk with horsemen about ways of breaking deadlocked negotiations over a purses contract. Hiles, however, was denied access to the Tampa Bay Downs stable area by the track's management.

"I was informed, by management representatives, I am not welcomed," said a frustrated Hiles. "I conducted a meeting in a damn field off the grounds. This type of behavior is inexcusable."

Track management and the Tampa Bay Downs Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association have been struggling to put together a purses contract for more than two months. Negotiations turned sour in November when six officers of the Tampa Bay Downs HBPA and/or their trainers were denied stalls for the meet that began Dec. 16. Since then, horsemen's representatives have held out of a year-round, multi-year contract that includes a non-retaliation clause to protect HBPA officers next year.

John Grady, Tampa Bay Downs' general manager, said he is only interest in a one-year contract that runs concurrent with the live meet, and he doesn't believe a non-retaliation clause is necessary. Grady said a non-retaliation clause would give special treatment to some trainers, and he doesn't believe that is fair.

Grady also said recently he is opposed to Hiles or anyone with the National HBPA attempting to mediate the purses contract.

"These are local issues that we can handle," Grady said.

Tampa Bay Downs' meet is suffering as the contract dispute drags on. Purses have been cut 40%, field size is diminishing, and the racetrack is losing millions of dollars a day because it cannot sell its live simulcast signal without a contract. Hiles said track management's bad attitude can only make things worse.

"I has been my experience that when horsemen and management work together, as equal partners, we can accomplish many positive things for racing," he said. "Tampa Bay Downs management's uncooperative attitude has created a negative perception that will surely carry over to the patrons, and that is unfortunate."

Tampa Bay HBPA officers also are fighting to preserve the location of their office next to the racing secretary's office on the backside. Track management wants to move the HBPA office to a building set away from its current location. Robert Van Worp, vice president of the Tampa Bay HBPA, said the new office proposed by Tampa Bay Downs' executives is in a field without a paved road leading to it. Van Worp said it is inaccessible when it rains. Tampa Bay Downs HBPA officers have been denied access to the existing office and their records throughout the contract dispute.

Track executives said the office is locked because the space is provided by the purses contract that expired last year.