Less than two weeks after the scheduled opening of its video lottery terminal facility, Thistledown will begin its 2013 live race meet with purses roughly double what they were in 2012.
But some local horsemen that have raced at the Cleveland-area track for years, even decades, may end up having to ship in to benefit from the bigger pots.
The VLT facility, located on the first floor at Thistledown, is set to open April 9. Live racing begins April 19.
The first condition book shows a minimum purse of $7,000 for a $4,000 claimer with conditions. An open $5,000 claiming race will go for $10,100, which includes $1,000 for Ohio-registered horses.
Maiden special weight purses are set at $14,000 for the open division and $16,500 for Ohio-bred restricted races. In comparison, purses for the same races at Beulah Park near Columbus are $4,500 and $7,000, respectively.
Thistledown, owned by Rock Gaming, opted to increase purses at the beginning of the meet for the purpose of continuity. The 122-day meet extends through Nov. 17 with racing mostly four days a week on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Trainer Donn Rowe, who has raced in Cleveland since 1964, said April 2 he is on a waiting list for stalls even though his horses have been housed at Thistledown for decades. Other trainers are in the same predicament.
Another trainer said to be on the waiting list is Jose Lopez, who has stabled at Thistledown and this winter had stalls at Turfway Park in Kentucky. Lopez shipped Funnys Approval from Turfway to Laurel Park in February to win the grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap.
One of Rowe's clients is Bob Reeves, a member of the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a longtime Ohio breeder who races at Oaklawn Park in the winter and early spring. Rowe could have up to 10 horses for Reeves in Ohio this year.
"Bob sent a letter to (track management), and they said they had to re-evaluate stall applications this year," Rowe said. "Most of Bob's horses will be coming from Oaklawn. They said I didn't run my horses much last year. I told them to look at a computer and see how many times I entered my horses and they didn't use the race."
Rowe, who also breeds Thoroughbreds in Ohio, has averaged about 18 starts per year at Thistledown with about 66% of his starters finishing first, second, or third.
Finding races in Ohio has been a problem for other horsemen with higher-quality stock. They've had to sit on their horses or ship elsewhere because most of the races last year at Thistledown were for cheaper claiming horses even though fields were small.
Reeves said he spent more than $120,000 the last two years buying Ohio-bred horses by stallions such as City Zip and Henrythenavigator to race with Rowe in Ohio and capitalize on the state's mission of higher-quality racing and expanded breeding program.
"To me, you want to give stalls to people who have supported your program in the past and those who support the Ohio Thoroughbred industry by breeding and racing horses in Ohio in general," Reeves said.
Rowe said he has the option of remaining at Beulah Park—should the River Downs meet move there. If the transferred meet begins in late May as scheduled, Beulah Park's barn area would remain open, but horsemen would be expected to fill races there.
It's one of many complications that have developed as Ohio racing and breeding transitions to financial support from gaming. Still undecided is how much VLT revenue will go to purses; Ohio horsemen still have no deal with racetracks on the percentage.
The 2011 VLT law calls for a state tax rate of 33.5%, leaving the VLT agents—the racetracks—with more than 60% of revenue. The law states that tracks and horsemen's groups must cut a deal on a percentage for purses and breed development from the track's share; a 2012 clean-up bill set the range at 9%-11%.
When Scioto Downs, a Columbus harness track, was the first to launch VLT gaming in June 2012, it had no gaming contract with the Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association. Thus, the track, under a deal with the Ohio State Racing Commission, placed the minimum of 9% into an escrow account.
Purses at Scioto Downs doubled or tripled last summer depending on the class of the race. But with the 2013 live meet approaching in early May, purses continue to earn the minimum allowed by law.
The law states the OSRC can set the percentage between 9%-11%. The OSRC has yet to take action.
Ohio HBPA executive director Dave Basler said April 2 there have been no negotiations on the VLT purse share for about nine months. The racetracks' response to the initial horsemen's offer was lower than 9% with a chance of being even lower.
"The HBPA is currently considering all of its options in regard to the matter," Basler said.