10/05/2009 11:00PM

Calder purses take cut again

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MIAMI - Purses at Calder will be cut 15 percent beginning with Thursday's program, and as expected, the news did not sit well with local horsemen, who have been down this road before.

Calder management said the cuts were in response to economic trends evident across the country and in Florida. They cited heavy rains that forced the cancellation of 33 of the 40 scheduled turf races in September, which in turn created a reduction in field size, as another principal reason for the recent downturn in handle. Management added that 127 of the 216 scheduled grass races to date, 58 percent, have been lost because of weather since the meet began more than five months earlier.

In addition to slashing purses overall, Calder has reduced purses on both the Calder Derby and Calder Oaks from $150,000 to $100,000, and canceled three $100,000 stakes during the Tropical at Calder session: the Frances Genter, Fred Hooper, and Tropical Park Oaks.

Calder officials had little comment regarding the purse reductions, which were announced early Saturday afternoon, other than a statement from the track's vice president and general manager of racing, John Marshall, who said, "Our team at Calder is working diligently to get our slots and poker operations up and running as soon as possible, which we expect to add significant dollars to our purse account in the future. Hopefully these cuts will be temporary, and circumstances will allow us to restore purses to their original level later this year."

Calder's new poker room is scheduled to open on Oct. 23, while the target date for opening the slots building, now under construction, is the last week in January.

Officials of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, in a release issued Monday, noted their "extreme disappointment" in what they termed the "abrupt announcement" of the purse cuts.

The horsemen's association said that as late as Saturday morning it had proposed various options to Marshall in hopes of avoiding a cut, all of which the group said were deemed "unsatisfactory" by officials of Calder and its owner, Churchill Downs Inc.

The horsemen's group acknowledged that betting revenue at Calder dropped appreciably in September because of various reasons. It noted not only the extreme weather and subsequent loss of the majority of the scheduled turf races, but also the construction of the new slots building, which has blocked the main entrance to the racetrack. The group also cited the national economy in general and the beginning of the football season as additional factors in the decline. It added, however, that the Florida horsemen have done their part by keeping average field sizes up to near the top in the entire country for such a lengthy race meet.

The 2009 Calder season began on April 24 and continues through the end of the Tropical at Calder meet on Jan. 2, 2010.

Overpayment seen

Calder officials projected a $1.3 million overpayment of purses by the end of the Tropical meet had they not made the latest cuts. Horsemen's officials proposed to have that money paid back by the opening of the 2010 meet next April, taking into account expected purse revenue from the new poker room, slots money beginning early next year, and simulcast revenue on the Gulfstream Park signal after the Tropical meet closes. They also said the downward trend in handle during September seemed to have ended in light of a very successful four-day period of racing here last week.

The horsemen stated that this additional revenue, combined with the new purse cuts, would actually result in a "substantial underpayment" in purses when the 2010 meet begins.

"It is unfortunate that CDI appeared to have jumped the gun and cut purses at this time and damaged the already fragile relationship between horsemen and CDI management," said the horsemen's group's executive director, Kent Stirling.

Coa back with a bang

Jockey Eibar Coa wasted little time making his presence felt upon returning home last weekend, winning with the first three mounts he accepted on Saturday's card. Coa, a seven-time Calder and Tropical at Calder riding champion, will ride here regularly through the end of the Tropical meet and stay on in south Florida for the 2010 Gulfstream session.

Coa said his decision to return to the area much earlier than usual was prompted by his desire to spend more time with his son Kieber who turns 17 years of age this month, and his mother, Elsa, both of whom live here year-round.

"Right now the most important thing in my life is being with my family," said Coa, "not winning jockey titles or worrying about where I am in the standings. Although don't get me wrong, I intend to work hard and get the most out of my ability while I'm here."

Coa suffered through a disappointing Saratoga meet but got off to a fast start once Belmont opened and was near the top of the standings when he packed his tack and returned to Florida.

"I knew a lot of the horses who had run well for me at Saratoga but didn't win would run good and likely win once we got to Belmont," said Coa. "But by that time I had already made up my mind to come back here, so even though business was good in New York I decided to stick with Plan A. I can always go back to New York in the spring."

Coa said he's also very happy about all the support he received once local horsemen learned he would be back here on a permanent basis the remainder of the year.

"I've ridden for a lot of these guys earlier in my career, and it's great that they are willing to support me now."

Although winning a riding title is not at the top of his priority list, Coa figures to be in the thick of quite a battle for the Tropical at Calder riding title with Manoel Cruz and apprentice Luis Saez. The Tropical meet opens Oct. 18.