Fight Over Florida Dates: No Winners in This War
It is déjà vu all over again in South Florida. The only thing missing from this three-ring circus is John Brunetti, who could be heard roaring with laughter miles away from his office at Hialeah Park, which is showing battle scars years after getting kayoed by both Calder and Gulfstream Park in the fight over racing dates.
Since racing dates were deregulated in Florida, Calder, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., has been open from late April through early January, with Gulfstream Park occupying the prime winter dates both before and since its purchase and redevelopment into a casino and shopping village by Frank Stronach. Hialeah hasn’t run a Thoroughbred meeting in a decade after being squeezed out of the picture.
Gulfstream, with more than a little encouragement – especially from out-of-state horsemen who send their stables to Florida in late November – announced its intention to begin its live race meeting on Dec. 2, 2011, a month earlier than usual, and to close April 8, 2012. That stepped squarely on the toes of Calder and CDI, which didn’t look at the tradeoff in dates as a fair deal.
So instead of working out their differences, Calder management took hostages – in this case, the Florida horsemen who support racing year-round, living off Calder’s comparatively meager purses during the long spring, summer and fall months, and hoping for a bite of the bigger purses available during the Gulfstream winter season.
In a meeting with those horsemen on Tuesday, John Marshall, Calder’s vice president of racing, gave them a my way or the highway choice: feel free to go for the higher purses at Gulfstream Park between now and the end of the meeting in late April, but don’t come back. Furthermore, the policy prohibits horses from returning to Calder if they are sent to race at Tampa Bay or any other track.
Here is Marshall’s law, taken from a handout given to horsemen at the meeting: “Please note the change in Section 11, Conditions to Stabling: ‘Horses allotted stalls that are shipped from Calder to race at another association will not be permitted to re-enter Calder without the prior written approval of the Racing Secretary. (exception for Graded stakes) Stalls previously occupied by any such horses will be reallocated.’”
The chances are slim to none that Calder’s racing secretary will give that written approval, based on a conversation I had with Marshall, who said, “Generally speaking it’s going to be very difficult to get an exception from the racing secretary.”
I think slim just left town.
Marshall repeated numbers from the handout to horsemen stating how much Calder spends keeping its stable area open year-round — $5,830,000 – and said close to $2 million has been invested in capital improvements to the backstretch over the past three years.
“We incur significant costs to maintain the stable area and a good training facility,” said Marshall. “It’s free of charge to horsemen. We see these facilities as a competitive edge to us. If horsemen are unable to get stalls at Gulfstream, we see that as Gulfstream’s issue and not necessarily Calder’s.”
In addition to Gulfstream Park and Calder, horses stabled at Palm Meadows (owned by Gulfstream Park) and private training facilities Payson Park and Palm Beach Downs help fill Gulfstream Park’s races. The rule could seriously damage Gulfstream Park’s racing programs. According to Daily Racing Form, 40% of weekday entries are horses stabled at Calder, with a lower percentage of weekend entries coming from Calder.
Marshall defended the stabling policy by insisting Calder needs a fresh and healthy horse population when racing shifts there in late April. “We have to be concerned with the health of our equine population,” Marshall said. “We are about to endure a 12-month race meet. A large percentage of horses come to Calder to race at other tracks. We don’t want to see that horse population run down.”
Marshall also said he believes it is in racing’s best interest to race year-round at Calder. “It’s tied to our commitment to the horsemen to have a year-round training facility,” he said. “We believe we are in the best situation in the market to do that. If the South Florida market has room for one major racetrack, we believe it’s Calder.”
Why, I asked Marshall, do some people, including Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, believe Calder has “no use for horsemen whatsoever” and considers them a “necessary evil”?
“That’s not true, and it’s unfortunate he would say something like that,” Marshall responded. “Racing is at the core of everything we do. For every trainer who explained displeasure (with the new policy), we had others who supported what we are doing. They supported the fact we are standing up to a competitor. Some of those comments come from FHBPA leaders.”
When pressed, Marshall declined to name any of those horsemen said to be in support of the policy
He also didn’t see the ultimatum as any kind of a hardship on owners and trainers, who, if they want to keep their stalls at Calder, won’t run horses at Gulfstream for the next nine weeks.
“It’s one race, maybe two,” he said, “for the ability to race at Calder for weeks and months to come in the future.”
This is a war where there will be no winners.