Storm Warning - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the March 16, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Disputes over Thoroughbred racing dates are as endemic to South Florida as the sabal palm.

Ugly clashes among the three racetracks—Gulfstream Park, Calder Casino & Race Course, and at one time Hialeah Park—led to deregulation of racing schedules in 1988. Even with state regulators out of the mix, the battles have raged, featuring regular threats of running overlapping dates and brinkmanship. For most years since the racetracks have had to sort schedules out among themselves, sanity eventually prevailed and a compromise avoided disaster for the market and the horsemen.

This year, however, the arena is set and the gladiators are readying for the fight.

The most recent battle pits Gulfstream and Calder, who are locked into schedules that have them running head-to-head every weekend from July 6 through June 30, 2014. The racetracks sit only eight miles from each other.

Only a natural disaster or a possible agreement among the five pari-mutuel businesses operating within a 50-mile radius of the two tracks will allow the schedules to change.

Only once—in 1989—have two South Florida tracks run simultaneously. The results were predictably disastrous. Hialeah opened Nov. 19, expecting to run a 158-day fall-to-spring meet. Owner John Brunetti believed Hialeah could compete with Calder during its regular fall Tropical-at-Calder meet and then against Gulfstream in the winter and spring. Hialeah and Calder are 10 miles apart.

“I am here to tell you that I will do whatever is necessary, with money and resolve, to keep Hialeah alive,” Brunetti told reporters in the press box after the nine races opening day. “I don’t care what they do or what we do, we’re going to run here for the next 157 days. It’s a battle to the death.”

On that first head-to-head day, Hialeah attracted a crowd of 4,114 who bet $368,372. Calder had 10,286 fans who wagered $1,370,151. The next day (a Sunday), Hialeah’s attendance was 3,500 and the on-track handle $263,641. Calder’s Sunday crowd was 9,360 with an on-track handle of $1,164,732.

Twelve days later Brunetti contacted the Florida Pari-Mutuel Commission and requested an emergency meeting for the purpose of allowing Hialeah to end its meet immediately. Hialeah raced only 28 days and lost an estimated $65,000 per day. By 2001 Hialeah had stopped running Thoroughbreds altogether and lost its Thoroughbred permit. It reinvented itself in 2009 with Quarter Horse racing.

So here we are again.

Calder may be first out of the gate in this contest with its popular Summit of Speed card slated for the first head-to-head weekend. Long-term, however, Gulfstream is expected to come out on top, in part because Calder has not made many friends among the horsemen. In 2012 the track announced it wanted to charge off-season rent for stalls.

Regarding the face-off with Gulfstream, Calder executives have kept the conversation confrontational by indicating, though not by any formal means, that whoever ships from Calder to Gulfstream to run is not welcome back. Gulfstream, in the meantime, has promised stalls to all horsemen and said even during the busy winter months that accommodations will be made to house the South Florida regulars.

Most ironic is that this fight should erupt at the same time The Jockey Club’s subsidiary InCompass has completed an analytical tool for tracks to improve the scheduling of races in order to maximize the simulcast market handle.

“It has been well documented that our consumers are frustrated by overlapping post times of simulcast races and the use of this scheduling tool should help alleviate that problem,” said Brad Kimbrell, president of InCompass.

What about overlapping race meets? No tool fixes that.

Thoroughbred racing is likely to be the biggest loser in this battle. An already stretched horse population during the summer months will probably lead to mediocre racing at both tracks, lower handle, and less interest among fans. Florida horsemen are still holding out for some last-minute reprieve, perhaps in the form of a lease agreement between the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream, and Calder’s owner Churchill Downs Inc.

Without some kind of deal, brace yourself, South Florida.

“It will be a train wreck,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association. “The sport will lose, the fans will lose, and the horsemen will lose.”

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