A prolonged contract dispute at Tampa Bay Downs is turning ugly. Track general manager John Grady cut Thursday's purses by at least 40%, and a legal battle is brewing regarding the track's authority to take simulcasting signals.
Grady said the cuts were necessary because Tampa Bay Downs cannot sell its simulcast signal without a purses contract in place.
"That cuts off a huge amount of revenue, much of which is used to keep those purses up," Grady said. "We promised to keep the purses up for three days, which we did, but we couldn't do it long-term."
Eighty horses were entered in Thursday's races despite the purse cuts, which Grady interpreted as a strong commitment to the racetrack.
"I'm sure as the dickens the rank and file wants to run and wants a contract," he said.
Track executives and officers of the Tampa Bay Downs Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association are deadlocked over a new purses contract for the current meet. Horsemen want a year-round contract that includes a non-retaliation clause, and racetrack executives oppose both conditions. Grady said the contract only needs to run concurrent with the live meet, and he believes a non-retaliation clause is only a way for some trainers to get preferential treatment with stall allocations.
Bob Van Worp, an owner and vice president of the Tampa Bay Downs HBPA, sees the purse cuts as one more way that racetrack executives are trying to pressure horsemen into a bad contract.
He said horsemen entered on Thursday because they were deceived and the purse cuts are designed to pressure them into an unacceptable contract. He said horsemen were told of the purse cuts, but were also told a contract probably would be signed by Thursday and the purses would be unchanged. Van Worp also said a racetrack employee wrote down the names of any horseman who walked away without entering.
"It's intimidation," Van Worp said.
Racetrack executives have been accused of bullying horsemen for a month and a half. In November, stalls were denied to six Tampa Bay Downs HBPA officers and their trainers. These officers believed they were being punished for last year's highly contentious contract dispute, which caused a dismal opening day of short fields, poor attendance, and low handle.
Grady defended the stall allocations as "business decisions." He said the track had 2,300 applications and only 1,328 stalls. He also said some trainers are unhappy with stall applications every year. The track, however, has hundreds of vacant stalls at this time, according to Van Worp and other horsemen. Van Worp said the officers and trainers who were denied stalls needed a total of 50 stalls, so their requests could be filled with space remaining. Grady said that isn't true.
"All our stalls have been allocated," Grady said. When he was asked whether horses were actually in those stalls, he said he didn't know because he is not on the backside every day. "They have been allocated and I expect them to be filled," he said.
Last year's purses contract included a non-retaliation clause, and horsemen recently took racetrack executives to court for violating the clause. The court ruled in the racetrack's favor because the HBPA was trying to enforce a contract that expired when Tampa Bay Downs' 1999 meet ended May 7.
Tampa Bay Downs and the HPBA also are heading for a different clash over simulcasting.
On Monday, the racetrack offered a full slate of simulcasted races even though the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association withdrew its permission. In Florida, state law gives the Florida HBPA control over simulcast signals coming into a track during is dark days, according to Kent Stirling, executive director for the Florida HBPA.
"The consent was denied twice," Stirling said. "Our lawyers sent them a letter a month ago saying we would likely withdraw our authorization. I sent another letter Friday saying we denied our consent."
Peter Berube, Tampa Bay Downs' assistant general manager, signed and submitted a form dated Dec. 13 to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering that indicated the racetrack had obtained the Florida HBPA's consent to receive 39 signals.
When contacted, Berube said Tampa Bay Downs had a different interpretation of the state law referred to by Stirling and that the law was being reviewed.
"It is ludicrous that we would have to ask permission from a rival horsemen's group," Berube said. "When we are both conducting live racing, we're competing with one another. It obviously benefits the rival's home track to withhold permission."
The Florida HBPA is based at Calder Race Course near Miami, which is conducting its Tropical-at-Calder meet.
The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering has been contacted about the problem. Leon Biegalski, chief attorney for the division, has asked racetrack executives and the Florida HBPA to each submit letters outlining their interpretation of the problem.
"I'm not sure what the issues are, yet," Biegalski said. "I just want to be sure whether people are talking about the same statutory provisions, and I'm not sure they are."
Biegalski did not set a time frame for submitting the letters. He only asked that they be done in a timely fashion.