02/21/2013 3:16PM

Gulfstream, Calder brace for possible dates overlap


It’s hard to find anyone who thinks it’s a good idea for two racetracks in South Florida to run competing race dates this summer.

Yet that’s what may happen.

One week before formal dates applications are due in Florida, Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course are still planning to run head-to-head beginning in July, despite strong misgivings about an overlap. The plan would create daunting challenges, including a potential shortage of horses, limits on the distribution and marketing of the tracks’ simulcast signals, and concerns over whether renovations to Gulfstream’s dirt and turf surfaces will adequately address the track’s drainage problems during the rainiest season of the year.

There is still time for the two tracks to work out a plan that would avoid a dates overlap, which Kent Stirling, the long-time executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said “isn’t going to be good for anyone.” Final dates applications are not due until Feb. 28, and Gulfstream officials have said they intend to seek out management at Calder to work out an agreement, even though Gulfstream “is truly committed” to its plan, according to Tim Ritvo, the track’s president.

“We’re going to try to work out an agreement that will work in the best interests of everyone, although we have to put our own interests first,” Ritvo said.

John Marshall, Calder’s general manager of racing, said in an interview Feb. 15 that the two tracks have yet to hold substantive discussions on a deal to avoid an overlap. He said Calder remains committed to its plan to run four days a week from mid-April to September and then expand to five days a week for the remainder of the meet, which is expected to end in November.

The situation is pitting the tracks’ deep-pocketed parent companies against each other. Calder is owned by the publicly traded Churchill Downs Inc., which had record earnings in 2011 because of higher revenue from its casinos and online horse race wagering business. Gulfstream is owned by the Stronach Group, a private company headed by Frank Stronach, who in 2011 cashed in nearly $1 billion in stock in the auto-parts company he founded. Stronach, 80, has no one to answer to but himself, while Churchill has to answer to Wall Street.

The summer and fall race dates in South Florida have been the exclusive domain of Calder for decades. During that time, Gulfstream has raced the prime winter dates, when temperatures are mild and the weather is far less humid or stormy than in the summer and fall. Though Hialeah tried ill-fatedly to run against Calder in 1989 shortly after the state re-regulated the dates process, Gulfstream and Calder have avoided overlaps.

But late last year Gulfstream filed a preliminary dates application with the state indicating it will begin running two days a week from July to November, regardless of Calder’s plans. From December to April, it will seek to run five days a week, as it has traditionally done during its winter meet.

Ritvo would not comment directly on what shape a deal might take, but other officials have said Gulfstream may seek to compensate Calder for dropping dates from its schedule.

If a deal isn’t reached, then both tracks will probably face serious hardships in maintaining competitive race cards.
The most pressing concern is whether the tracks can fill races for six or seven days a week during the summer and fall. The South Florida horse population during the summer is typically about 1,700, Stirling said. Many of those horses are juveniles, which account for about 20 percent of the runners at Calder’s meet.

Last year, running four days a week during the stormy summer, Calder had an average field size of just over seven horses per race, well below the 8.5 or higher average that most tracks seek to maintain and “the lowest field size I could find in Calder’s history,” Marshall said. Field sizes in Florida and across the nation are expected to face significant downward pressure this year because the horses in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. foal crops are now 3 and 2 years old. Those crops were down 11.8 percent and 11.0 percent compared with the years earlier. Locally, it was even worse: Florida’s foal crop was down 18.3 percent in 2010, and the 2011 crop was down an additional 16.7 percent.

Gulfstream is planning to counter those stiff headwinds by attempting to recruit horsemen for its summer meet who are based in New Jersey and New York, Ritvo said. Gulfstream is also opening its backside year-round, and the track has told horsemen it will allow horses stabled at the track to enter races at Calder without fear of losing their stalls. Calder, in accordance with the policy at all Churchill tracks, does not allow a horse back on its grounds if a trainer runs at a competing track during its live meet.

Gulfstream is also recruiting trainers based at Calder by pointing out that Gulfstream has no plans to charge stall rent, Ritvo said. Last year, Calder upset its horsemen when it announced a plan to charge stall rent beginning this year.

For Gulfstream to be successful in recruiting horsemen for a meet that will hold possibly only 20 races a week, it will have to offer purses competitive with other summer race meets. That may be difficult when the track will face significant competition in the simulcast market from the wide range of tracks in operation in the summer months, cutting into the track’s ability to generate purse revenue. If there is an overlap, Gulfstream and Calder will also be competing to win the dollars of the same local population of horseplayers.

To address concerns over drainage problems on Gulfstream’s racing surfaces, Ritvo said the track plans to renovate the dirt surface and turf surface once the current meet closes in April. Both of Gulfstream’s racing surfaces have drained inconsistently over the last several winters.

Marshall said he was confident that Calder would be more successful than Gulfstream if the overlap went ahead, citing Calder’s experience with the weather and the type of horses who typically run during the summer and fall.

“They may be underestimating how much work goes in to putting on a race meet during the summer here,” Marshall said. “This is a plan that still has a lot of question marks, at least where Gulfstream is concerned. On our end, there are no question marks. We’ve done it. We’ve run in the summer, we’ve dealt with the weather. They haven’t.”