There is an old Kenyan expression that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. If Churchill Downs and the Stronach Group – owners of two South Florida tracks currently waging war with one another – are the elephants, then horsemen and horseplayers are the grass.
By going head-to-head with one another each weekend, Calder race course and Gulfstream Park are putting pressure on horse owners and trainers to pick sides in a fight they didn't start, and horseplayers are getting an inferior product in an increasingly marginalized gambling endeavor.
“All Calder did is apply for its regular dates. Gulfstream Park is the one who made the application to run on Calder, and they're doing it,” said John Marshall, the vice president and general manager for Churchill Downs-owned Calder. “We felt it was in the best interests of the industry in South Florida to have a consistent circuit for horsemen and bettors.”
Tim Ritvo, president of the Stronach Group's Gulfstream Park, sees it differently. “This is not about putting another company out of business,” Ritvo said, “but doing what we believe is best for Florida racing. We've seen a deterioration in the product during the summer, and think there's a day when trainers like Dale Romans, Todd Pletcher, and Kiaran McLaughlin will keep a string of horses in Florida all year.”
The two sides were close to a deal in June, but negotiations blew up before Florida's July 1 fiscal year began and tracks were required to run the dates they submitted. Ritvo blames Marshall for submarining a deal with horsemen. Marshall said Ritvo and Gulfstream made a series of promises to horsemen it hasn't kept.
“There's been a little bit of hard feelings,” admitted Ritvo.
“Trainers are trying to find out who to trust,” said Marshall. “Some would say, ‘Calder has told us things we didn't to hear and sometimes told us things we did want to hear. But the one thing is they didn't lie to us.' What we've done is starting to overrule the inconsistency, lies and dishonesty on Gulfstream Park's part to horsemen.”
Marshall said trainers were told Gulfstream would pay workers' compensation and that year-round horsemen who moved from Calder to Gulfstream would be guaranteed stalls there in winter. That now isn't true, he said.
“Their claim to open access has now waned,” Marshall added. “Trainers have gotten pressure from the Gulfstream Park racing office that if you're stabled at Gulfstream Park you have to race at Gulfstream Park and nowhere else.”
Not true, said Ritvo, despite a stall application that reads, in part: “Any owner or trainer may enter a horse stabled on Gulfstream Park premises at another track only with the prior written consent of Gulfstream Park. By way of example, circumstances where such consent may be granted by Gulfstream Park include the following: a) no race is available for the horse or the race fails to fill; b) the horse is being shipped to run in a stakes event; or c) the owner or trainer has more than two horses eligible for the same race.”
“We are 100% open access,” said Ritvo, adding that the stall application language was picked up by mistake from the application used last winter.
Paulick Report received complaints that Gulfstream's racing office has put pressure on trainers not to race at Calder if they want to keep their stalls.
“If anybody in my racing office tells them that, they can come to me and I'll straighten it out,” said Ritvo. “I'm the boss. The only thing that would be looked at down the line is if a guy has 10 stalls here and starts one horse with us this summer and instead runs at Calder. He's going to be in trouble getting stalls in the winter.” Ritvo admitted Gulfstream Park's fields have been short (99 horses in 16 races over the July 6-7 weekend, an average of 6.2 per race). We just had another 150 horses settled in here the last couple of days,” Ritvo said. “People have been afraid of what to do. Our commitment is long term.”
Marshall pointed out good fields sizes for the nine-race programs on July 12 and 13 (86 entered Friday, 72 Saturday), though his horse population has declined by one-third in the last week, from 1,570 on June 30 to 1,046 today.
Marshall said Calder has a “restricted access, not closed access” policy for horses that stable at Calder and race at Gulfstream. ”We take each request on a case-by- case basis.” Marshall said Calder is reviewing its policy to consider allowing a horse to race once at Gulfstream, thereby making the owner eligible to claim horses at Gulfstream.
Gulfstream nearly doubled Calder's handle last Sunday ($2.1 million to $1.2 million, each with eight-race cards) after Calder's 11-race Summit of Speed program on Saturday handled $4 million to Gulfstream's $2.1 million (for eight races).
“Handle as a scorecard is the wrong metric,” said Marshall. “There is brand disparity. Gulfstream handles more money when it runs, because it has the brand recognition to do so. What I'd be concerned about on the Gulfstream side is how badly am I degrading the brand when I get to the winter racing season.”
Marshall added that he's felt a “bias” against Calder in these uncharted waters of head-to-head competition.
“The FHBPA (Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association) is admittedly aligned with Gulfstream in this effort,” he said. “I believe the racing purists want Gulfstream to be right, because of the spending and the things they do to try and help racing, versus making economically sound decisions and operating just like a business. There's a clear public and media bias toward Gulfstream Park.” Ritvo says there's a reason. “We have a better long-term plan.”
There are no current discussions taking place, at least on the local level. “We are still willing to work with Churchill,” said Ritvo.
“We've indicated a few times before that the door is open at the corporate level if the Stronach Group is interested in making proposals or continuing discussions,” said Marshall.
And so the fight between the elephants goes on and the grass continues to be trampled.
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