04/14/2010 12:00AM

Track, horsemen debate reducing dates


CINCINNATI - River Downs will begin its 86th season Friday under a cloud of uncertainty.

Management asked for and received 104 racing days last fall from the Ohio Racing Commission. At that time, it looked as if Gov. Ted Strickland would sign an executive order to have slot machines installed at Ohio's racetracks to offset the state's budget deficit. That plan has fallen through.

River Downs has since asked the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to agree to reduce the number of days. The HBPA board of directors have voted down two such requests.

Jack Hanessian, River Downs general manager, is still hopeful that an arrangement can be reached.

"We hope to meet with the local horseman's group to see if they would vote for a reduction in days," Hanessian said. "We would like to eliminate Tuesdays. By the time the HBPA board meets, we will have run two Tuesdays, so we are talking about a total of 18 days."

Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio HBPA, has a meeting planned with River Downs horsemen on Monday.

"I am going to meet with the local horsemen and talk about how they feel about the program," he said.

The final decision is up to the HBPA board, which meets April 28. If a dates agreement can not be reached, the matter will be settled by an arbitrator April 29.

"According to the contract, River Downs has a right to ask for arbitration, and they did," Basler said.

Hanessian says the reduction in days will help everyone involved.

"If you spread out the purse money over fewer days, the purses will be higher," he said. "It will save us on overhead. In this economy it is something that every other track is trying to do."

Despite the dates debate, the barn area is beginning to fill up. On Tuesday, the first day of entries, there were only 10 trainers on the grounds. Friday's eight-race card consists of 62 horses.

"It will fill up quickly," said racing secretary Ed Vomacka. "Two-thirds of our opening day entries were shippers, but it will get better."

Vomacka expects the barn area to be full after Beulah closes May 1 and all of the horses allotted stalls ship over from nearby Turfway Park.

"Most, if not all, of the stalls have been promised," Vomacka said.

The stakes schedule will remain the same as in past years, with nine Ohio-bred stakes and two open stakes. The highlight of the meet will be the $200,000 Cradle for 2-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles over the turf on closing day, Sept. 6.

The leading trainer of last season, Joe Woodard, will be back looking for his third consecutive title. Woodard, fourth in the country in number of wins, trains for Billy Hays, the country's leading owner in wins. Other top trainers include Charlie Lawson, Doug Cowans, Larry Holt, Mike Rone, Chris Melton, and Bill Napier.

The track has added a 50-cent pick four on the last four races each day.

By David Grenin