Calder, Gulfstream tracks are set to go head-to-head for summer horse-racing profits

Eddie Plesa Jr. has been at Calder Casino and Race Course since the first horses hoofprints there. When the Miami Gardens track opened in 1971, his father was among the first trainers to set up shop.

Later, Plesa followed in his father’s footsteps, became one of the track’s top trainers, and supported the place in 1989 when it prevailed in a head-to-head racing battle against Hialeah — the only time in South Florida history that two of its three tracks ran concurrently.

“It was good to my parents,” Plesa said of Calder. “It’s been good to me.”

But Plesa’s long allegiance with Calder could soon end.

Unless a compromise is reached between Calder and Gulfstream Park, the two tracks will battle nose-to-nose starting July 6, a showdown that will force most trainers to choose sides.

“It is the talk in the trenches every day, every minute of the morning,” said trainer Phil Gleaves, who bases his 10-horse racing outfit at Calder. “Everyone is saying: ’What’s going to happen? What are we going to do?’ “

Said trainer David Fawkes, who also keeps his horses at Calder: “I know a lot of trainers are concerned.”

For more than 40 years, Calder has served as the year-round base for hundreds of trainers and jockeys and up to 1,800 horses. While Gulfstream (and, at one time, Hialeah) raced the prime winter dates as seasonal tracks, Calder — South Florida’s “summer track” — was left alone the rest of the year. Hialeah now runs quarter horses for two months in the winter.

If the tracks stick with a new dates proposal, that will no longer be the case. Starting July 6, Hallandale’s Gulfstream intends to race on Saturdays and Sundays, putting it in direct competition with Calder, which plans to race on Fridays, as well.

“Gulfstream is clearly the aggressor on this all-out assault against Calder,” said John Marshall, Calder’s vice president and general manager of racing.

Said Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo: “It comes down to the horsemen.”

Or, more specifically, the horses.

Traditionally, there have not been enough of them to support two tracks at once. South Florida’s horse population swells in the winter when trainers from the north ship horses in to race at Gulfstream, which is owned by The Stronach Group, whose chairman, Frank Stronach, is a prominent thoroughbred owner, breeder and track operator. But they always head back about the first of April, leaving behind only the “Calder horses.”

While Gulfstream expects to convince some northern-based trainers to remain on site this year, at least with a small string, it will still be dependent on Calder horses to succeed. For that matter, even during the lucrative winter season, Gulfstream could not operate successfully without Calder horses, which make up about 60 percent of the entries that fill the daily cards at the Hallandale oval.

Battle lines are already being drawn.

“Calder supporting Gulfstream, those days have come to an end,” said Calder’s Marshall. “Calder is no longer going to support Gulfstream’s race meet like it has for 40 years. Gulfstream is not going to have that luxury anymore.”

To ensure that, Marshall said any Calder horses that leave to race at Gulfstream won’t be allowed back.

“They’re going to be free to ship out,” Marshall said. “But they’re not going to be free to come back. If a horse goes over, [trainers] can’t expect to have a stall for that horse when it comes back. That’s no surprise to any horseman.”

It was the same strategy used by Calder in November ’89 when it out-dueled Hialeah for business. Calder now has a different owner: Churchill Downs.

But Gulfstream officials believe it can win this war by offering higher purses and a newer barn area. And they say they won’t place any restrictions on the horses stabled there. They will be free to race at either track. They’re also hoping to find a way to eliminate or reduce workers’ compensation costs for horsemen — a major expense.

Ritvo said studies show Gulfstream, no matter what month of the year is being compared, outperforms Calder in terms of dollars wagered, which directly translates to higher purses awarded to horsemen.

“Our goal is to eventually run in the summer, four days a week for $300,000 a day,” Ritvo said of projected purses. “They run for $200,000 a day, all year. We have the numbers that can sustain that $300,000.”

And horses always follow the money.

“I’m probably shooting myself in the foot here, but, because of that, I would naturally come over here,” Fawkes, a Calder man, said Sunday at Gulfstream as he was saddling a horse for a race. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Said Gleaves: “As horsemen — and I think I can speak for the collective group down here — we don’t mind where we race as long as we race for good purses.”

But Gulfstream also has significant drawbacks.

For one, it’s barn area is significantly smaller and would be unable to accommodate every horse from Calder whose trainer wished to move his horses to Gulfstream. Some local trainers might be left out in the cold if Calder was forced to close. Ritvo said Gulfstream is looking at plans to build new barns.

For another, while Calder’s sandier racing surface and drainage system is designed to withstand South Florida’s torrential summer rains, Gulfstream’s is not. Ritvo said plans are in the works to re-surface the track so that it can better handle monsoon-like conditions. Calder is skeptical.

“Our surface is built to race during the summer climate,” Marshall said of Calder. “There’s is not. It’s questionable whether there’s can even be engineered to do it given their position at sea level.”

Horsemen worry that, without changes to the Gulfstream surface, entire racing cards could be canceled due to bad weather in the summer.

Gulfstream also relies heavily on winter tourists for not only its racing business but also for the track’s adjoining outdoors shopping mall. Those tourists are gone in the summer, and business — especially at the mall — slows.

“This isn’t about what’s right for racing,” said Austin Miller, president of Calder Casino and Race Course. “This is about driving traffic to Mr. Stronach’s shopping mall. These are the sorts of reckless tactics that will damage, if not even destroy, the sport.”

Gulfstream contends that Calder is more interested in its casino profits than its horse racing product and, when the two sides were negotiating on dates, offered to “lease” its racing dates over the coming two years. Calder, under that proposal, would have been left to operate its casino.

With so much uncertainty, South Florida horsemen aren’t sure what happens next. But if both tracks go through with plans to race head-to-head, all eyes will be on them.

Gleaves had his horses stabled at Hialeah in ’89 when that fabled track lost the dates battle with Calder.

“It wasn’t a good situation for anybody,” Gleaves said. “Hopefully, these guys won’t make the same mistake. I would hope they’d be able to come to a resolution.”

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