In a deal that has put some horsemen's associations on edge, the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has agreed to reinstate signals from Kentucky racetracks to Tampa Bay Downs in exchange for dismissing its complaint for declaratory judgment against the Florida track.
The Kentucky HBPA board of directors, after at least a week of debate, voted March 16 to send the Turfway Park signal to Tampa Bay Downs effective that afternoon. The vote was 5-3, with one abstention. As part of the deal, Tampa Bay Downs will receive the Keeneland and Churchill Downs signals as well through the conclusion of its live meet in early May.
The Tampa Bay HBPA and track management have been at odds for years over contractual issues. Some horsemen, primarily members of the HBPA board of directors, claim they have been targeted by management and have been denied stalls. Last year, Rick Hiles, former president of the National HBPA, wasn't allowed on track property to meet with horsemen.
The Kentucky HBPA, with more than 6,000 members, is the largest horsemen's group in the country. Its decision to reinstate Kentucky signals at Tampa Bay Downs, even though the situation there hasn't been resolved, has led at least one other horsemen's group, the Ohio HBPA, to reinstate the Beulah Park signal at Tampa Bay Downs.
Because of state law, the Florida HBPA must allow Tampa Bay Downs to simulcast the in-state signal from Gulfstream Park. Even so, Linda Mills, president of the Florida HBPA, fired off a letter to National HBPA president John Roark expressing her concern over the situation.
Mills said when an association such as the Kentucky HBPA "voted not send their signal, and now has reversed that decision when, in fact, nothing has changed in the Tampa Bay situation, it is very distressing. If the Kentucky HBPA board, one of the largest and strongest in the country, fails to stand behind our motto of 'horsemen helping horsemen,' it may be time to seriously re-evaluate our motto."
Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky HBPA, said March 18 his board "had a very uneasy feeling from the get-go that horsemen at Tampa weren't supporting (the action taken by other HBPAs). Individual horsemen were not supporting what was going on, and some of our directors had a real problem with that."
It has been tough to gauge the seriousness of the situation at Tampa Bay Downs, because only a handful of affected horsemen have spoken out. But letters, some signed and some anonymous, claim the track is, in effect, attempting to destroy horsemen's solidarity.
Bob Jeffries, president of the Tampa Bay HBPA, has been denied stalls and currently trains his horses off-site. Tampa Bay Downs general manager Peter Berube has said 55% of stall requests are denied on the basis of space, and that Jeffries "failed to produce the mix of horses we need to operate our meet."
Despite the dispute, the meet has been a success thus far. Average field size is 9.43. On-track handle is up 5%, intertrack handle is up 34%, and "live" out-of-state handle is up 30%. Total all sources handle is up 26%.
Even so, purses were cut in late January and haven't been increased as yet. Track officials said the cut was necessary because of an anticipated $800,000 hit on the purse account because signals had been denied.
In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Louisville, Ky., Dec. 19, the Kentucky HBPA requested clarification on whether the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act, which grants local horsemen's groups control over outgoing signals, supercedes simulcast contracts between racetracks. At issue was whether the Kentucky HBPA could withhold the Turfway signal from Tampa Bay Downs based on the dispute between the track and the Tampa Bay HBPA.
At the time, Maline said: "It's a declaratory action to determine our rights are under the Interstate Horseracing Act. Our attorney felt it would be prudent to clarify this once and for all."
Berube had threatened lawsuits against horsemen's groups that withhold signals. In the March 16 agreement, Tampa Bay Downs agreed to release horsemen's associations from any liability in light of the Kentucky HBPA's decision.
In a March 18 memo to six HBPA presidents, National HBPA executive director Remi Bellocq briefed them on the situation and said it is up to each affiliate to decide whether it wants to send signals to Tampa Bay Downs. He said Tampa Bay Downs attorney Robert Clark "has verbally indicated that it is (the track's) desire to work with the National HBPA and individual HBPAs toward resolving the issues that are at the core of this disagreement."
The St. Petersburg Times reported March 19 that Berube and Clark traveled to Kentucky in three weeks ago to meet with Maline. The story said a deal was agreed to in principle at that time.
"We wanted to go there and let them see our position so they could make their own judgment," Berube told the Times. "It was more about getting an understanding of each other's positions. I think with (Turfway and Beulah) back, you might see a few more very shortly."
Not necessarily so, said Dick Watson, president of the Charles Town HBPA. In West Virginia, horsemen's associations have control over outgoing and incoming signals. The Charles Town Races signal has not be sent to Tampa Bay Downs, and vice-versa, and that will remain the case, Watson said.
"To the best of my knowledge, nothing has changed with (the Tampa) situation," Watson said. "I presume (the Kentucky HBPA) has a president and a board of directors with something to say about this, and I would hope they would let it become public knowledge.
"When the Charles Town HBPA addressed the issue fall, we thought we would do what we could to help horsemen at Tampa because we've been in that situation before. Horsemen should be able to act in unison. The Charles Town signal will not be sent to Tampa Bay Downs until we have proof conditions there have improved dramatically."