No Easy Answers in South Florida Track Battle

No Easy Answers in South Florida Track Battle
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Gulfstream Park has held an almost 2-1 edge in pari-mutuel handle.

Southeast Florida began its fourth head-to-head racing weekend July 27 with Gulfstream Park holding an almost 2-1 edge in pari-mutuel handle and Calder Casino & Race Course rejecting speculation it might soon cancel some racing dates.

Meanwhile Calder, Gulfstream, and Tampa Bay Downs are embroiled in a dispute over full-card simulcasts that may be as significant as the head-to-head racing, according to John Marshall, Calder's vice president and general manager of racing,

For the first six head-to-head days, Gulfstream reported average daily all-sources handle of about $2.5 million. A review of Equibase charts showed Calder with average daily all-sources handle of approximately $1.4 million for the six days. That included $4 million on July 6, its Summit of Speed day with four graded stakes.

Gulfstream publishes daily handle figures, while Calder does not.

Marshall said handle on races at Calder has been lower than he expected, except for the Summit of Speed program. But he said: "We are not planning any changes in our schedule."

Marshall said Calder and its publicly traded parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., believe canceling Calder dates would set a precedent for backing down to the expansion plans of Gulfstream and its privately held parent company, The Stronach Group. Marshall said Calder believes it needs to race at least three days a week to remain eligible as a year-round host track for bringing in simulcast signals from Thoroughbred tracks outside Florida.

A Florida host then re-transmits those signals to other pari-mutuel outlets in Florida.

Until this year Calder has been Florida's only host track for that lucrative business from mid-May through late Novembera period when it had been the only track racing live in the state. In May Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs began using a new interpretation of Florida laws to become year-round host tracks with approval from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs maintain that by running July 1 and June 30, the first and last days of a Florida fiscal year, they can be a simulcast host throughout the Florida fiscal year even when they are not holding traditional race meets.

Calder previously had a large majority share in the intra-track wagering business. A state law requires the guest site, such as Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons, to receive at least 33.3% of the revenue. The remainder is split between the host track and its local horsemen's group.

For Gulfstream and Calder that is the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. For Tampa Bay Downs it is the Tampa Bay HBPA. The Blood-Horse estimates that the three tracks had combined revenue of $18 million.

There are reports that Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have taken some guest-track customers away from Calder. But the tracks will not reveal customer lists, which they consider proprietary.

Information on how much business Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have gained is not available because as of July 26, the Florida DPMW had not posted wagering data for May and June on its website.

Based on a complaint filed by Calder, the Florida DPMW is reviewing state laws and rules to determine if it acted legally in allowing Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream to become year-round simulcast host tracks. The Florida DPMW does not provide timetables for when it will issue rulings, but Calder is hoping it will revoke the year-round host status for Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream, or not renew approval for fiscal year 2014-15.

Marshall said that in order "to determine how either (Calder or Gulfstream) is doing, you have to look at the head-to-head handle and at the guest track's ITW handle." The issue is whether revenue Calder is bringing in from guest tracks will be greater than the money it likely will lose from running head-to-head against Gulfstream.

Marshall declined to disclose how much the recent handle numbers are impacting Calder's revenue and earnings.

Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said that "so far, we are encouraged by our handle numbers for the first summer meet in our history."

Gulfstream has not made money on any July racing days, Ritvo said. "I expect we will get there soon in our summer meet, which we are holding for the first time," he said.

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