by Jim Freer
Calder Race Course and all other Florida tracks are facing the prospect of not receiving the signal for the May 17 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and its Pimlico Race Course undercard.
The possible Florida blackout of the Preakness comes as Calder is dealing with a 73% drop in total handle, according to the Jockey Club Information Systems. That decline stems from Calder not sending its simulcast signal outside Florida. Meanwhile, Calder is not receiving signals from Churchill Downs, Pimlico, River Downs, Beulah Park, Thistledown, Delaware Park and Presque Isle Downs.
The import signals, including the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands (gr. I), and Calder’s non-Florida export have been shut off by horsemen’s groups amid a multi-state dispute between horsemen and track owners on contracts for advance deposit wagering revenue.
The drop in handle has led parent Churchill Downs Inc. to cut purses for overnights and for several major stakes at the Miami Gardens, Fla., track. The purse cuts are causing some owners to ship horses out of Calder, said Eddie Plesa Jr., one of the track’s leading trainers.
One major issue, even for casual fans, is that as of May 11, Calder was still not receiving Pimlico’s signal.
The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has not allowed the track to send its signal to Calder since it opened its season April 21. Thus, Gulfstream Park and other tracks that take signals from Calder are not receiving Pimlico simulcasts.
Last year, combined betting on the Preakness card at Calder and other Florida tracks was $4.6 million, according to Calder. That included $840,000 at Calder. Assuming a 21% blended takeout rate, Pimlico, Florida tracks, and the Maryland horsemen divvied up about $970,000 from Florida bets.
Calder officials said they are hopeful of a resolution that would permit Calder to take Pimlico’s signal, at least for Preakness day. Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, declined to comment.
Florida HBPA legal counsel asked the organization and its officers to not discuss Calder simulcast issues because they are defendants in a civil suit CDI filed April 24 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. The national Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group, of which the Florida HBPA is a member, also is a defendant in the suit. CDI is seeking an injunction to prevent defendants from attempting to negotiate uniform terms for sales of signals.
The THG is conducting ADW negotiations and seeking higher splits for horsemen in several states, including Florida and Kentucky. Using authority under the Interstate Horseracing Act, the Florida HBPA is not permitting Calder to send its signal to tracks and other simulcast facilities outside Florida. It is permitting Calder to take ADW bets only from New York City Off-Track Betting Corp.
The Florida HBPA can take those actions because it has not signed 2008 contracts with Calder. The Florida horsemen do not want to sign a purse contract without contracts on this year’s ADW revenues and future revenue from slot machines at Calder.
Citing lower simulcast handle, Calder reduced average daily overnight purses 30% beginning April 27. On May 9, Calder announced purse reductions for eight stakes, including six on its July 12 Summit of Speed program.
Calder’s announcement of overnight cuts led several owners to reduce their purchases of horses at a sale in Ocala, Fla., said Plesa, who is a Florida HPBA member but not an officer. Some owners have delayed plans for sending 2-year olds to Calder, while others “are sending vans to New York and other sites,” he said. “Once horses go, they will not come back this year.”
Plesa’s base is at Calder, and he has a large stable at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. Some of his owners are sending horses from Calder to tracks other than Monmouth, he said.
“Absolutely, it is having an impact on me and all of us,” Plesa said. “People are depressed at Calder.”
If purses remain low, Plesa said he’s concerned about a spillover in income for “grooms, exercise riders, and employees who own homes in this area.” Trainers “have not talked about not running or a work stoppage,” he said.
Calder officials are meeting with trainers and owners individually, to help them understand the track’s position, said spokeswoman Michele Blanco. She also said Calder officials are returning fans’ calls about the simulcast situation; complaints peaked when Kentucky horsemen prevented Calder from carrying the Kentucky Derby, the May 2 Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1), and other Churchill Downs races that weekend.
The Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association are preventing Churchill from sending its signal to Calder.
“I am not optimistic of a settlement anytime soon,” Plesa said. “If they did not fix this for the Derby and Oaks, I see no pressure now.”
Jockey Club statistics show Calder’s total handle for the first nine days of its 2008 meet was $8,919,190. The daily average was $991,000. For Calder’s first nine days in 2007, its total handle was $33,570,525 for a daily average of $3.7 million. The numbers do not include separate-pool wagering.
Calder’s all-sources handle May 3 was $1.1 million, down 80% from $5.3 million May 5, 2007. Calder’s May 10 handle was $1.2 million, or 71% lower than $4.3 million on the comparable 2007 Saturday.