Florida Racing Dates: Is It Really About Live Racing?
Gulfstream Park says it's all about live racing. Calder says it's all about live racing. But I'm beginning to wonder: Is the dates conflict that will have the two South Florida Thoroughbred tracks running head to head beginning in July really about live racing?
Thursday was the deadline for Florida's pari-mutuel facilities to submit to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering the racing dates they intend to run for the 2013-14 fiscal year that begins July 1. There is no regulation of racing dates in Florida.
For the first time, Gulfstream Park will operate live racing year-round, with Saturday-Sunday programs beginning July 6 and running through Dec. 1. The Stronach Group-owned track and casino will then go to a Wednesday-Sunday schedule through April 6, 2014, after which it will revert to weekends through the end of June. Calder, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., will switch to a Friday through Sunday schedule beginning in July and keep that format through June 2014.
Or so they say. No one seems to think there will be enough horses or fan interest to support two live race meetings in the same town. The last time it happened, when Hialeah Park and Calder went head to head in 1989, Hialeah Park was pummeled into submission after horsemen chose to stay at Calder (and Hialeah's John Brunetti instituted a ludicrously high takeout on wagers).
And don't forget Tampa Bay Downs over on the Gulf Coast side of Florida. For the first time, Tampa has applied to run on July 1, 2013, close until December, run its traditional meeting through Kentucky Derby weekend, then reopen for one day of racing on June 30, 2014.
Why would Tampa Bay run July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014?
In a word, simulcasting.
Somewhere, in the convoluted Chapter 550 of Florida statutes covering pari-mutuel wagering is language stating that pari-mutuel facilities wishing to import Thoroughbred simulcasts have to buy the signal from the track currently offering live racing. The selling track gets two-thirds of the net revenue, with the simulcast facility getting one-third.
Calder, while never having the prime winter live racing dates when tourists flock to South Florida, has enjoyed the bulk of revenue from the best simulcast dates of summer and fall, including meetings at Saratoga and Del Mar, along with the Triple Crown events and Breeders' Cup days.
Berube thinks his gambit means Tampa Bay qualifies to be a simulcast “seller” throughout the year. Gulfstream Park thinks its year-round dates schedule means it can be a seller, too, as does Calder.
The net effect will be price competition, with the sellers offering incentives to Florida dog tracks and jai-alai frontons to buy the signal from them.
John Marshall, the general manager and vice president for racing at Calder, said he will move to block both tracks from cutting into his track's dominating position on summer simulcasting.
But let's get back to live racing, which is what this really all about, right?
Timothy Ritvo, Gulfstream Park's general manager, says Gulfstream will need between 600 to 800 horses to sustain live racing on weekends. They'll have to be stabled at Gulfstream, since Calder officials have already said they will not allow horses stabled there to return to their stalls if they run at the summer Gulfstream meeting. Marshall said Calder has given stalls to 1,750 horses for its spring meeting opening April 6 after receiving applications for more than, 2,200.
Between the time the Gulfstream Park meeting closes and the beginning of its year-round run in July, Ritvo said the Stronach Group will invest nearly $1 million on a new drainage system to be installed between the main dirt track and turf course to prepare for the tropical rainfall of summer. “It will be similar to Calder's,” said Ritvo, a former trainer who has been based in South Florida for more than 20 years. “We're also changing the main track from loam to a sand-based surface,” he said.
Ritvo also said Gulfstream is trying to implement a workers' compensation program to encourage trainers to stay at the track year-round, including the winter months when many northern stables flock to Florida. In addition, he said, Gulfstream is buying a new rail system, allowing the turf course rails to be moved in or out quickly.
As for purses, Ritvo said, “We're hoping to be at least as good as Calder, or better. $200,000 a day to start. Our ultimate goal is four days a week racing in the summer at $300,000 a day. Those are very feasible numbers.”
Calder will start out its meeting at about $180,000 a day in overnights, Marshall said.
Marshall, who termed Gulfstream's move to race year-round “reckless,” said Calder has not wavered on its commitment to live racing, despite rumors that the track was willing to give up its race dates in exchange for a deal on simulcasting revenue and a guarantee it could continue to operate its casino.
“That's not true,” he said about the rumors that began circulating last summer. “That's what (the Stronach Group) wants people to believe.”
Marshall said Gulfstream's insistence on racing year-round was more about bringing people to the shops and restaurants in the Village at Gulfstream Park bordering the racetrack and casino.
“Obviously, there are benefits to us with the Village, the restaurants and everything else,” said Ritvo. “Two thousand people on a Saturday afternoon will help those businesses.”
But Ritvo said the move was about strengthening Florida's racing and breeding program.
“It would be much easier for me to run six months and take six months off,” he said. “It's going to be a lot of work and a big investment. We think Florida racing is going in the wrong direction and all the work we do for four or five months gets lost. We think we can save the industry by running year-round.
“My heart is like Frank (Stronach)'s heart. We are into racing. If we continue to see deterioriation in summer racing it will be harder and harder to fill winter cards as people find other places to race. We think by not running we would be more disruptive than we would by running.”