04/17/2013 3:29PM

Thistledown: Slots era begins without a revenue-sharing agreement


Two days prior to the start of Thistledown’s 122-day meet, Ohio’s horsemen have yet to reach an agreement with the track’s owners on purse subsidies from its casino, a situation that will likely lead to a blackout of the track’s signal outside of Ohio.

Without the agreement in place, the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has refused to grant approval for Thistledown to sell its signal to out-of-state outlets, with the exception of two account-wagering companies, twinspires.com and XpressBet, that had existing agreements with the track (XpressBet, a company owned by the Stronach Group, provides wagering services for DRF Bets). It’s extremely unlikely the two sides will reach an agreement prior to the meet starting on Friday, horsemen’s officials said, meaning the slot-machine era in Ohio is set for an inauspicious start, with racing to be conducted largely for the benefit of in-state customers at a time when race dates on the state circuit also are up in the air.

Still, horsemen aren’t worried yet. Under a law passed last year, horsemen are guaranteed a minimum of 9 percent of the revenue from slot machines at the state’s racetracks, even if there is no agreement with the track on a set percentage. As a result, the first condition book at Thistledown still contains a 65 percent bump in purses compared to last year, in anticipation of the millions of dollars in subsidies that will be directed to the track’s purse account this year by the state racing commission.

And if horsemen are dissatisfied with that arrangement, it’s hard to tell: 79 horses are entered for the eight-race opening-day card, an average of 9.9 per race.

Thistledown is owned by Rock Ohio Caesars, a partnership that also owns two standalone casinos in Cincinnati and Cleveland and a 90 percent share of Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. The partnership says that it has spent $88 million to convert the Thistledown property to a racino.

Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio HBPA, said that horsemen first approached Rock Ohio for a deal on purse subsidies in May 2012. The company did not provide a counteroffer until February of this year, Basler said, and the counteroffer promised less than the 9 percent mandated by law, underlining the fact that Ohio racetrack owners have little incentive to reach a deal for more than the minimum without horsemen using their simulcasting approval as a bargaining chip.

Either way, Thistledown’s Friday opening will make the track the first of Ohio’s three Thoroughbred tracks to run live races at a facility with slot machines. Cincinnati’s River Downs was torn down earlier this year to make way for a new casino-racetrack facility on the same property and won’t re-open until next year. Meanwhile, a plan to run River’s dates this year at Beulah Park outside Columbus – which is expected to be relocated as early as next year to Youngstown, on the Pennsylvania border – is in limbo because horsemen and Beulah’s owner, Penn National, have yet to reach an agreement on dates and accommodations at the new track.

Thistledown’s stakes schedule also has yet to be set, in large part because it could be impacted by whether the River dates are run at Beulah, according to Basler. Thistledown’s most prominent stakes is the Ohio Derby, which is traditionally run in early June.

As to when horsemen and tracks will reach agreements on dates and purse subsidies, Robert Schmitz, chairman of the state racing commission, says he’s not holding his breath.

“I would prefer to have them work this out between themselves,” Schmitz said Wednesday. “But it’s like mediating between a dog and a cat when horsemen and tracks get together.”