Updated on 03/11/2014 1:22PM

ThistleDown, Mahoning Valley Race Course reach deal with horsemen on dates


Ohio’s two northern Thoroughbred tracks will run a coordinated year-round racing schedule with at least 200 live race cards a year beginning in 2015 under a 10-year deal the tracks have reached with the state’s horsemen, the tracks and horsemen’s organization said Monday.

Coupled with 100 live racing dates at Belterra Downs in Cincinnati, the two agreements will mean that Ohio tracks will continue to run approximately 300 live racing dates a year, despite concerns about a national shortage of horses and the already anemic demand for the state’s racing product. Under the pacts, 100 live racing dates will be carded each at ThistleDown outside Cleveland and at a new track, Mahoning Valley Race Course in northeastern Ohio, over a minimum of 50 weeks of the year, beginning in 2015 and running through 2024.

Dave Basler, president of the Ohio Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said that Ohio racing interests were confident the state could fill the races in 2015 because of new purse subsidies from slot machines that would drive average daily distribution at the three tracks above $100,000 a day. He also said that many Midwestern horsemen were expected to relocate to Ohio because the state’s tracks had well-regarded surfaces.

“Two hundred days of year-round racing on good surfaces for racing and training, at good purses, we’re confident we can do that,” Basler said. He said horsemen would begin negotiating with Belterra Downs on the “southern Ohio circuit” in the next 30 to 60 days, with the intent of running at least 100 dates at Belterra in 2015 and beyond.

Ohio has run 300 days a year for much of the past decade, even as the state’s racing product drew a smaller and smaller share of the national wagering market year after year and its already-minor breeding industry collapsed. From 2000 to 2010, purses distributed at Ohio Thoroughbred tracks, an indicator of revenue derived from handle, dropped 50 percent, from $30.9 million to $15.5 million, according to The Jockey Club. Meanwhile, the number of mares bred in the state dropped from 865 to 136 during the same time period.

Ohio’s privately owned tracks were all believed to have been losing money for more than a decade in 2011, when all three were targeted for acquisition by casino companies. Shortly after the purchases were complete, the state’s governor signed an executive order allowing the companies to operate slot machines at the tracks. A subsequent order allowed the companies to relocate the tracks to areas of the state where they would face less competition from existing in-state casinos, some of which were owned by the same companies that owned the tracks.

Penn National, which had purchased Beulah Park, opted to relocate the track’s license to the site in Mahoning Valley. Beulah Park continues to run live races while the new facility is being built but will close and be torn down later this year. The Mahoney Valley site is expected to open this fall, with 21 live dates beginning Nov. 24.

Ohio’s law requires 9 percent to 11 percent of slot-machine revenue at track casinos to go to racing purses, provided horsemen and track owners do not come to a different agreement. Both Basler and Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National, would not divulge the percentage of revenue that will go to purses under the new 10-year agreements. Basler said the formula for the subsidies was “structured a little differently” and was more complex than a straight 9 percent or 10 percent cut of the revenue.

The agreements will likely be voted on by the Ohio State Racing Commission at its March 27 meeting, both Basler and McErlean said. The formula for determining the slot-machine subsidies will be divulged at the meeting, they said, as part of the process.

The plan to run 300 days of live racing at Ohio tracks is being advanced at a time when many racetracks in the United States are struggling to fill races because of a stark decline in the number of horses of racing age. Foal crops declined precipitously from 2009 to 2011, and though the declines have leveled off in the last two years, racing officials have projected that U.S. racetracks will need to cut 25 percent from the national inventory of races or face average field sizes of approximately six horses per race in 2015, a full two horses below the figure believed adequate to maintain the interest of horseplayers.

McErlean said that the relocation of Beulah’s license to the Mahoning Valley site will create a new year-round circuit with nearby ThistleDown, which is co-owned by Caesars Entertainment and Rock Gaming. Prior to the relocation, Beulah formed a circuit with River Downs in Cincinnati, which was torn down and rebuilt on the same site by the track’s owner, Pinnacle Entertainment (the track also was renamed Belterra).

“We did argue that we would be better off with a three-track circuit,” McErlean said, referencing the Ohio tracks. At the behest of horsemen and breeders, Ohio’s racing law was amended to require a minimum amount of racing dates after slot machines were authorized in 2011.
Horsemen and tracks have been negotiating on the agreements for two years. During the process, the state’s racing commission has attempted to push racetrack owners to provide a minimum amount of stalls and grandstand seats to ensure that racing is not forgotten at the new facilities.

Mahoning Valley Race Course, for example, will have 1,000 seats in an enclosed grandstand and 988 stalls in 13 barns.

McErlean said horsemen will benefit from the amenities at the new Mahoning Valley facility, which is 180 miles from Beulah Park outside of Columbus.

Horseplayers are “certainly going to get a brand-new Beulah Park,” McErlean said. “The old Beulah was certainly not brand new.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the ownership of Turfway Park. Turfway is majority-owned by a partnership of Rock Gaming and Caesars Entertainment, not Pinnacle Entertainment.