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Gulfstream Park sets its sights on year-round racing

Gulfstream Park is preparing for a big expansion in its schedule, with a goal of having what it calls year-round horse racing starting in 2014.

Gulfstream now has thoroughbred racing from early December through early April, the glamorous part of South Florida’s racing year. Calder Casino & Race Course has it the other eight months.

Calder plans to keep its April through November schedule, regardless of changes Gulfstream might make, said John Marshall, Calder’s vice president and general manager for racing.

Gulfstream’s change would be having races at least several days most weeks each year from early 2014 onward, said Tim Ritvo, the track’s president. Gulfstream would continue to race five days a week during its winter season, he said.

If neither track backs down from its plan, they face the unwelcome prospect of head-to-head racing during some weeks in 2014.

They have until Feb. 28 to resolve differences and set race dates for the 12 months beginning July 1, 2013.

Gulfstream is timing its racing expansion plan to coincide with finishing the first part of a massive development project, for which it has not announced a price.

Construction is set to begin in April on two trackside hotels and two new grandstand sections.

Work will be carried out near Gulfstream’s track between April and November in 2013. Thus, Gulfstream plans to leave that part of 2013 to Calder for racing.

Gulfstream and its parent Stronach Group of Aurora, Ontario, are preparing an expansion that includes racing while officials of Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent that is based in Louisville, Ky., have recently said their company’s expansion will be in gaming other than live racing.

That is leading to expectations in the racing industry that Gulfstream might offer financial incentives in areas such as simulcast wagering to convince Calder to reduce its racing schedule, said Scott Savin, a horse owner who was Gulfstream’s president from 1999 to 2006.

Savin is now chief operating officer at Magic City Casino, a greyhound track in Miami.

The Dispute

Racing dates are set through June 30, 2013, for the two tracks, which are eight miles apart.

Gulfstream, in Hallandale Beach, will end its 2012-2013 race meet on April 5. Calder will open the following day and has the dates through June 30, 2013.

They have until Feb. 28 to give the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering their race dates for the 12 months between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014.

Since 2002, Florida horse tracks have picked their own schedules with approval of dates and license renewals that are usually automatic from the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

If two neighboring tracks pick overlapping dates, it would not prevent that state agency from giving approvals, said its spokeswoman, Sandi Poreda.

Calder and Gulfstream must submit their first date filings by Jan. 4. They can amend filings up until Feb. 28.

“We will file for the same dates we have now,” Marshall said.

Saud Ritvo: “We will start our 2013-2014 meet around Dec. 1 and then begin year-round racing.”

That could result in head-to-head racing during the spring of 2014.

Calder and Gulfstream had a similar dates dispute early in 2011.

Calder had been racing from late April through early January, and Gulfstream had the other months.

After negotiations, the tracks agreed to let Gulfstream take December in return for giving Calder two additional weeks in April.

“We accepted that as being the new normal,” Marshall said. “Now I’m not sure what they want.”

The issue is that Gulfstream wants more stand-alone race days, while Calder needs to race at least 80 days a year to comply with state rules to retain the license for its casino.

At both tracks, designated portions of slot machine revenues, including nonrace days, go into purses for races. Money from betting on races is still the major contributor to purses.

Calder’s average daily purses were about $200,000 during most of its 2012 season. Gulfstream’s average is about $400,000 this month, and Ritvo expects an increase in January.

Gulfstream’s national name recognition would help it generate more wagering than Calder on summer and fall days, Savin said.

Trainers David Fawkes and Henry Collazo, who both have horses at Calder, joined Savin in saying that the expectation of higher handle and purses is a reason they would like Gulfstream to have more race days.

They also are among numerous owners and trainers who feel that Calder has let conditions deteriorate in its stable area and parts of its racing building.

“We keep the building clean and functional,” said Marshall, adding that Calder has an ongoing program for renovating barns.

Gulfstream has racing when many of the country’s top horses, jockeys and trainers are in South Florida for the winter.

It has what Ritvo calls a top brand identity for fans who bet at other tracks, at Las Vegas sports books and through Internet and telephone services.

Gulfstream also has a fan base that appears younger and more upscale than at Calder. Calder does what Marshall calls “the hard and heavy lifting, for Florida racing.”

“We race during the summer rainy season,” he said. “We are a developmental track for 2-year-olds that are a big part of Florida racing.”

Calder and Gulfstream have different systems of reporting, handle, thus making a direct comparison difficult.

Calder’s handle fell in three of the four years between 2008 and 2011, according to Churchill Downs Inc. financial reports.

Gulfstream’s news releases show that betting on its races in 2012-2013 had a daily average of $7.9 million — the highest at the smaller facility it opened in 2006. Calder’s best days are between $3 million and $4 million, on Saturdays with major stakes races, according to a review of Equibase Co. charts.

Ritvo expects that Gulfstream’s name recognition can help it generate higher summer and fall handle than Calder. He said Gulfstream would race just three days in many weeks, with horses that some trainers would leave at Gulfstream and horses vanned over from Calder.

Gulfstream’s Plan

During the second half of next year, Gulfstream expects to complete construction of the outer portions of the hotels and most construction of its new grandstands.

Construction will continue in 2014 in ways that will not disrupt racing and minimize inconveniences for fans, Ritvo said.

Gulfstream will increase its seats facing the track from about 1,500 to 52,000, including views from hotel rooms. It hopes that will qualify it to hold the annual Breeders’ Cup races in 2015 or some later years.

A casino building and movie theater complex are part of the plan.

Gulfstream also wants more race days because many fans stay to eat or shop at the adjacent The Village at Gulfstream Park outdoor mall, which Stronach Group owns.

Gulfstream is trying to build recognition as a local year-round entertainment destination with racing as the big attraction, Ritvo said.

“To do this we need more racing days,” he said. “The time has come for year-round racing at Gulfstream Park.”

Hialeah’s Prospects

Amid the Gulfstream-Calder dispute, Hialeah Park is eligible for, and interested in, returning to thoroughbred racing for the first time since 2001.

Hialeah is holding its fourth season of quarter horse racing. Under its state license for that racing it can have the more glamorous thoroughbreds for up to half its races each year.

“We would like to have the thoroughbreds back, and a lot of people ask me about that,” said John Brunetti, Hialeah Park’s chairman and owner. “But we don’t plan to do it [thoroughbreds] if we have to go head-to-head with one of the other tracks.”

Hialeah stopped holding thoroughbred meets because it could not be sure of a schedule spot of its own.

One factor that might help Hialeah’s prospects for a return is that Ritvo and Brunetti both said that Gulfstream and Hialeah have a good working relationship.

Brunetti said Calder has not responded to his requests to meet and talk about setting up a three-track schedule.

“We would have no objections to Hialeah running thoroughbreds as long as it is not head-to-head with Calder,” Marshall said.