Contract Heat - by Dan Liebman

Calder Race Course and Ellis Park have little in common…until you look beneath the surface.

Located in South Florida on the Miami-Dade/Broward County line, Calder is part of the sprawling metropolitan area known as Miami, Fla. Driving east takes one to the Atlantic Ocean, the drive time for the short distance determined only by the congestion and traffic lights.

To the naked eye, Ellis Park appears to be in Indiana, only because one must travel over a bridge to reach Kentucky. Ellis, too, is situated near a body of water, the Ohio River, which separates Evansville, Ind., from Henderson, Ky. There is nothing sprawling or metropolitan about the area.

A couple of things they have in common, this time of year at least, are heat and humidity. The purchase of a beer from an outdoor vendor gives one six or seven minutes for consumption before the elements turn the frosty beverage warm to the taste.

Calder is known for being adjacent to Dolphin Stadium, home not only to the NFL team, but also the Florida Marlins and University of Miami Hurricanes.
Ellis Park, affectionately called the “Pea Patch,” is home to an infield known for its soybean crop.  

In 2007, Calder raced 172 days; Ellis Park 46. Calder allows those horsemen wanting to race year-round in South Florida a place to do so; Ellis allows those horsemen wanting to stay in Kentucky from the Fourth of July to Labor Day a place to do so. Calder is owned by Churchill Downs Inc.; Ellis was owned by Churchill until the fall of 2006, when businessman Ron Geary purchased the facility.

This year, Calder and Ellis have had one important thing in common—difficult negotiations with horsemen over simulcast contracts. Under the Interstate Horseracing Act, tracks may not send their signals out of state without the approval of the local horsemen’s group. With 85-90% of handle now wagered off-track, the lack of a contract has meant a huge loss to Calder and a similarly anticipated decrease to Ellis.

Figures show Calder’s handle off 73% during the 45 days of the contract dispute.

Few tracks today draw significant on-track crowds. In keeping with a silly CDI policy not to announce numbers, Calder does not provide attendance figures, but previous meets showed average daily turnstile counts at about 3,700. Ellis reported about 2,700 patrons per day last year.

Many horsemen’s associations have begun using the new Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group to negotiate contracts on their behalf, as is the case in Florida and Kentucky.

On July 5, the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association announced it had struck a deal with CDI on contracts covering purses and pending slot machine revenue. But there is no deal on advance deposit wagering, meaning Calder could send its signal to out-of-state tracks, and receive signals as well, but its races could not be wagered on through ADWs.

At Ellis, Geary said he would not open the track, and indeed missed the July 4 opening. The track will open July 11 after he agreed to the split THG officials have been pushing for—one-third to purses, one-third to the track, and one-third to the ADW provider. The 6% to purse accounts is up from the 2.5% Geary said owners and trainers had been receiving.

No businessman is in business to lose money. Geary said Ellis lost $2.7 million last year, and will lose money this year.

So why agree to the one-third, one-third, one-third split?

For one, because it is the right thing to do, providing more money from handle back to the purse accounts of those supporting the meet. For another, higher purses means more horses, which means more handle.

Yes, Geary and others in Kentucky are banking on getting slots. But if the deal signed in Kentucky is indeed precedent-setting, that will be a good thing for horsemen throughout the country.

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