10/01/2012 1:21PM

Calder: Local trainers fear stall fees will drive horses out of Florida

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MIAMI – The polarization of Florida horsemen and track management at Calder widened last week with the announcement that trainers will be charged a daily fee of $10 per stall beginning the day after the current meeting closes on Nov. 30 and continuing through the opening of the 2013 meet next April.

The decision to charge stall rent was the second new fee imposed on local horsemen this year. In July, Calder implemented a $5 daily charge for the dormitory rooms used to house backstretch workers. Those rooms had been rent free prior to this summer.

Calder, which is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., has traditionally kept its barn area open for training at no cost to horsemen during the winter months. But John Marshall, Vice President and General Manger of Racing at Calder, said a recent look at the track’s 2013 business plan and proposed budget uncovered the need to offset rising costs associated with operating the facility, which first opened in May of 1971.

“We’ve considered charging for stalls during the off season for the past few years but never felt the economic pressure to act upon it until now,” said Marshall. “We also don’t understand why there is an expectation from people in the industry that we should provide free stabling and free training when we’re not running live. The industry standard at most tracks is that when the track is not running live racing, they’ll either close or operate as a training center for a fee.”

Marshall said the decision to charge $10 per stall was based on both what Calder’s total costs would be to keep the stable area open for training during the winter along with the costs of stabling at surrounding training centers. Other local training centers, all of which charge stall rent, include Palm Meadows, Palm Beach Downs and Payson Park.

“Our other alternative would be to close the barn area altogether four weeks after the current meet ends, which we can do by contract, and re-open it six weeks prior to the 2013 season,” said Marshall. “If there is an acceptance of the fee and demand for us to remain open, we will. If people start defying the fee, we’ll have no alternative but to close for training during the winter. ”

Horsemen were outraged at the news of the stall fee, many fearing the charges could force them out of business, and the timing of the announcement, which came shortly after the deadline passed for filing stall applications for the 2012-2013 Gulfstream Park meet that opens Dec. 1.

“The bigger outfits might be able to pass these costs on to their owners, but the little guys can’t do that nor can they afford to absorb the cost themselves,” said Phil Combest, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, who has seven horses stabled at Calder. “This will have a major impact on racing’s future here because if trainers decide to leave Calder and ship out of the area, they won’t be coming back. And I’ve already talked to three trainers who said they can’t afford to pay the fee and can’t go anywhere either. They’ll just have to get out of the game. Me included.”

Bill White, who has been racing at Calder since 1986, stables 30 horses at the track, and has won 16 local training titles, sees the stall rent as a problem for the horse racing industry as a whole in Florida.

“If there is any profit at all in a trainer’s per diem, this fee would eat that up so you just have to pass it on to the owners, and if you think they’re going to absorb the costs, that’s not going to happen,” said White. “An owner simply has to make a call to another trainer somewhere else, line up a van, and in 72 hours this isn’t his concern any more. And once these horses leave, they won’t be coming back. I’m not as concerned about what will happen this winter as I am re-generating my barn for when Calder re-opens next spring.”

Fast forward to April, White said, and suddenly both the horsemen and Calder have a new problem.

“You have to remember we’re opening almost a month earlier here now so we can’t count on the 2-year-olds to be ready to fill the races,” said White. “By charging this fee, they’ll be aggravating the problem with older horses that already existed and in my opinion would end up trying to open the meet with 500 empty stalls. And in the long run that will cost Churchill Downs (Inc.) money because of their inability to put on good racing.”

Marshall said he has already planned for that potential problem.

“There’s definitely a risk that we’ll lose some of our horses next year,” said Marshall. “But we’ve come up with measures to counter that risk including starting out next year’s meet at a higher purse level to hopefully motivate some of the northern based trainers at Gulfstream Park to stay around the area longer or even leave a second or third string with us on a permanent basis.”

White said he fears longer range effects of a stall fee.

“This whole issue will have an impact throughout the state because of the lifeline with the 2-year-olds between Calder and Ocala,” said White. “As the viability of racing at Calder continues to contract, farms in Ocala dependent on this place will begin to dry out and suddenly the fallout from all this goes well beyond just Calder and Churchill Downs.”