12/31/2014 2:48PM

Showdown looms over Calder stabling


Horsemen at Calder Race Course facing eviction under a lease that expires as of Jan. 1 are being advised to remain on the grounds of the track by the state’s trainers’ organization, setting up a showdown between the trainers and Calder’s parent company, Churchill Downs Inc.

Phil Combest, the president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said on Wednesday that he expects 350 horses “at minimum” to remain on the grounds at Calder despite the expiration of a lease that allows horsemen to use 600 stalls at the track through Dec. 31. The lease was part of a deal between Calder and Gulfstream reached earlier this year allowing Gulfstream to lease Calder’s racing operation.

“There’s nowhere else for them to go,” Combest said.

Courtney Norris, a spokesman for Churchill, said in response to e-mailed questions on Wednesday that Calder “is moving forward as scheduled with staging the physical property for development and we have notified all horsemen in the area that they need to find other housing immediately.”

She also said: “The safety and welfare of horses remaining on the property will be safeguarded until the horses’ caretakers or authorities relocate the horses to other stabling,” indicating that Calder intends to enforce the eviction if horsemen remain on the grounds past Wednesday.

Combest acknowledged that the FHBPA was aware when the lease was signed this summer that Calder might evict the horses as of Jan. 1. But he said that up until about 10 days ago Gulfstream management assured the FHBPA that it would be able to extend the lease on the barn area.

Officials for Gulfstream did not immediately respond to phone calls on Wednesday.

The dispute over the stalls is only the latest source of friction between horsemen, Gulfstream, and Calder. For two years now, the relationship between South Florida’s racing constituents has increasingly soured over the tracks’ management of race dates and ancillary issues. Horsemen have typically sided with Gulfstream in the various disputes.

The agreement reached this summer allowed Gulfstream to run a fall race meet at Calder, while Churchill operated its casino at the track. Churchill has shown little interest in racing in the state since Gulfstream began racing head-to-head against the track last year, a decision that also allowed Gulfstream to broker simulcast signals in the state, cutting significantly into Calder’s revenue.

Combest said horsemen and Gulfstream had earlier decided to erect tents on a parking lot at Calder that could possibly house as many as 400 horses on a temporary basis. But Churchill nixed the plan on Sunday, Combest said. The lot is considered “common ground” under the long-term Gulfstream lease of the track’s racing operation, but both Calder and Gulfstream have to agree on any use of the lot.

Norris provided a statement on Tuesday saying Calder had not granted permission to Gulfstream and horsemen to erect the tents and that the temporary stalls “are not a viable solution and pose significant legal, liability, and other serious concerns.”