Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Horsemen

To the Dogs

John Pricci responds to the NHBPA’s opposition to a raceday drug ban:

How can so many of the game’s practitioners fail to see that what they accept as “unfortunate accidents that are part of the game” is unacceptable to an unknowing and unsophisticated populace?

Do so many horsemen wear closed-cup blinkers that they cannot see “taking a bad step” is nothing more or nothing less than animal cruelty in the public’s eye, a public that could shut the whole down thing down because for 15 minutes they were empowered to take action and feel good about themselves?

That’s what happened in Massachusetts to greyhound racing, an animal sport nationally in steep decline, partly due to dog welfare and safety issues.

Unaminously Accepted

Could the dispute be nearing an end? Late Thursday, the NEHBPA board voted to reject a proposal for the 2011 meet made by Suffolk Downs. “As it was written,” said Frank Frisoli, clarifying that the group could not accept the offer with its request that the horsemen not oppose state legislation reducing race dates. “We can’t abrogate our members’ right of free speech,” said the lawyer, explaining the horsemen’s opposition to the provision. “And we are not going to take any position supporting [Suffolk’s] legislative agenda.”

Modifying the offer to exclude that request, the NEHBPA board unanimously accepted the track’s proposal, agreeing to total purses offered of $8.25 million and an equal simulcasting revenue split. The horsemen have even agreed to race 80 days if the legislature approves a bill allowing Suffolk to run fewer than 100 days. If days are not reduced, then the horsemen will race for 100 days for the same purses.* “We’ve essentially accepted their position,” said Frisoli. The modified proposal has been submitted to Suffolk, and will be published on the New England horsemen’s website at some time. Until it is, I’ve posted a copy of the press release (PDF) here.

More on today’s developments from Steve Myrick in the Thoroughbred Times.

4:45 PM Addendum: What horseplayers want to know: When do the signals return? And, because I’ve commented a few times before that the horsemen have not acknowledged the effect of the dispute on racing fans, I have to point out that the NEHBPA proposal does just that on page two: “There is no doubt that this impasse has also inconvenienced the patrons who wager and support horseracing.” Appreciate the mention, even belated.

6:15 PM Update: Don’t head to Suffolk on Saturday expecting Aqueduct. Responding to the offer from the horsemen, Suffolk Downs vice president of marketing and communications Christian Teja said, “We’ve made several concessions in the interest of having a quality meet this year, including keeping the barn area open for 30 weeks and paying over $100,000 in daily purses at the request of the NEHBPA. The increase in purses was contingent upon one condition, neutrality on legislation to reduce the number of days required to simulcast, that the NEHBPA is unwilling to meet. We will assess all our options, including legislative relief independent of the HBPA.”

2/26/11 Addendum: Suffolk Downs, NEHBPA “far apart on a key issue,” reports Lynne Snierson. “In my mind, we’re very close,” Frisoli said yesterday.

*If the horsemen were to race 100 days for $8.25 million, however, that would bring the average daily purses down to the level both sides agreed was too low to support racing. I assume they’re gambling on the race day reduction.

What’s Next?

That’s the question for the Massachusetts racing community now. After days of intense discussions, and with time running out, a source reports that the NEHBPA board rejected the latest proposal from Suffolk Downs for the 2011 meet by a vote of 5-4, with one abstention, in a meeting on Thursday night.

Before the meeting, NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli told the Blood-Horse, “[Feb. 25] is the day for us to get back to them, and they said after that their position is likely to change. Ours would then change as well.”

What change there will be to their positions is uncertain. The horsemen have been seeking 100 days of racing, purses totaling up to $10.6 million, and an equal split of net simulcasting revenue. In its proposal of February 18, a copy of which was provided by a source, the track offered 75-80 days of racing, plus five additional days if a target for handle was hit by June 30, and total purses of $8.25 million. In later negotiations, Suffolk also reportedly agreed to the 50-50 simulcasting revenue split — a significant concession.

However, the track’s offer was made with the caveat that if blocked simulcasting signals were not restored by this weekend, days and purses could be cut — and the issue of days appears to be the cause of the scuppered deal. For the track to race fewer than 100 days, the state-mandated minimum for simulcasting, the legislature would have to pass a bill allowing a shorter meet. Suffolk’s offer was premised on the horsemen not opposing such a bill.

With the dispute now in its fifth week, and simulcasting handle at Suffolk down almost 45% this month due to the blocked signals, the situation — which seemed to be approaching a resolution — has taken a worrisome turn.

7:45 AM Update: Lynne Snierson has more on the days:

“We will let Suffolk petition the legislature to reduce the number of days of racing,” Frisoli said. “The one thing we won’t do is support their petition to race fewer than 100 days. If the legislature agrees to reduce the number of days, then we’ll race whatever days the state requires.”

Negotiations will continue today in an effort to reach an agreement.

10:45 AM Addendum: Coming back to a couple of points — the average daily purses Suffolk is offering range from $103,000 for 80 days to $110,000 for 75 days. The horsemen were given the option of choosing which structure they preferred. Either way, the average meets or exceeds the daily purses proposed by the horsemen to the track on February 10, in which purses were estimated at $95,000 to $100,000, based on an equal split of available revenue, assuming revenue remained level with 2010. That seemed a risky assumption, considering the downward trend in Suffolk’s handle, and it was on that basis that track management turned down the offer after calculating that purses would probably run $82,500 per day — not much more than the $79,000 daily that was being paid at the end of last year’s meet and an average for which the horsemen said they could not run this year. On that matter, all agreed.

Days are a trickier issue. In the offer made by Suffolk, management wrote, “our proposal requires that the NEHBPA not oppose the legislation and not oppose a request to the [Massachusetts Racing Commission] that the requirement be reduced to match the number of days set forth in our agreement.” In the quote Frisoli gave Snierson after Thursday’s meeting, he said, “The one thing we won’t do is support their petition to race fewer than 100 days. If the legislature agrees to reduce the number of days, then we’ll race whatever days the state requires.” This reads like very small matter of semantics — Suffolk does not ask the horsemen to support, it asks that they not oppose. It would seem that the horsemen’s counsel is saying that the NEHBPA won’t oppose a bill reducing days, which is the concession Suffolk seeks, but his statement does not indicate agreement. I’ve attempted to contact Frisoli for clarification and hope to have more on this point this afternoon.

2:45 PM Update: Clarified! In a conversation this afternoon, Frisoli said that the NEHBPA board has unanimously agreed to accept Suffolk’s proposal, with one change. Steve Myrick of the Thoroughbred Times has the story.

NEHBPA Discussions Continue

The NEHBPA board met on Monday night for round two of a discussion on the latest offer from Suffolk Downs for the 2011 meet. There was no resolution to the dispute at the meeting’s conclusion. Via email, NEHBPA lawyer Frank Frisoli said this morning that the board “is continuing to discuss the matter and is seeking to discuss alternatives and modifications with Suffolk Downs.”

As Lynne Snierson reported for the Blood-Horse yesterday, and a Railbird source confirmed, the net simulcasting revenue split remains contentious, and days may be a matter of dissension within the board. The horsemen have sought 100 days of racing this year. Suffolk, which originally offered 67-76 days, has now proposed 75-85 days. What does not seem an issue at this point is the track’s total purse offer of $8.4 million. That’s about the total paid last year, and matches up with the horsemen’s last offer to the track.

Regarding the proposal, Frisoli noted, “we believe [it] remains open.” Contrary to a report yesterday that Suffolk has threatened to shut down in March if the blocked simulcasting signals were not restored by February 26, a source indicated that there is no deadline to the proposal, although it is based on revenue assumptions that may not hold if signals are not restored soon. The board will meet again to discuss the offer on February 23.

9:30 PM Addendum: Lynne Snierson has more on Monday night’s meeting. As mentioned above, days remain an issue. Snierson’s source says that that board is in agreement on 100 days; Frisoli’s response is a study in lawyerly parsing:

“Part of the problem is that the number of live racing days is more important to some of our members than it is to others. As a board, we are trying very hard to do a good job of representing the entire membership. I think the board is doing that.”

Also clarified is the possibility that the purses and days on offer will be cut if simulcasting signals are not restored quickly, as a racetrack source told Railbird yesterday. “[T]he offer Suffolk has on the table now is contingent upon all simulcast signals being turned back on no later than Feb. 27. After that, Suffolk will start cutting race days and total purses,” reports Snierson.

Horsemen, Suffolk Talk

The NEHBPA and Suffolk Downs resumed negotiations this afternoon, one week after the horsemen offered the track a proposal for the 2011 meet, and almost four weeks after talks over purses, days, and the simulcasting revenue split initially broke down. No details of the discussion were divulged. Frank Frisoli, the horsemen’s lawyer, sent the following statement:

The NEHBPA conferenced with representatives of Suffolk Downs this afternoon. It anticipates receiving a proposal in the very near future from Suffolk Downs which will be presented to the Board of Directors of the NEHBPA.

The NEHBPA will have no further comments on this matter pending receipt of a proposal.

Track officials have not yet commented.

Hopefully, that the horsemen expect a proposal soon from Suffolk is a sign some progress was made today in finding a resolution to the bitter dispute.

2/18/11 Addendum: Lynne Snierson reports on the Thursday conversation:

“We had a good dialogue today and some of it is encouraging,” said Chip Tuttle, chief executive officer of the East Boston, Mass., track. “There are some places where we still have additional work to do to reach a consensus. We will keep the process moving forward.”

In light of the past few weeks, that’s a promising statement.

9:00 PM Update: “Constructive” talks continued on Friday …

Stalemate Update

Paul Daley reports on the Suffolk Downs-New England horsemen dispute:

It is Frisoli and the NEHBPA’s contention that shortly, if a contract cannot be ironed out, other HBPA’s around the country — such as Gulfstream Park — will block their signals from being sent to Suffolk out of solidarity to the New England horsemen’s plight. Stay tuned for that one.

Pity the horseplayers, caught between.

The Other Side

Yesterday’s post may have been intemperate. Via Twitter, I heard from a New England horseman that the dispute with Suffolk Downs is one of fairness. “[W]e … just want what every other racing jurisdiction gets, a 50/50 split on simo revenues, not 75/25 split for suf.” For another, who prefers anonymity, it’s about protecting the state-mandated days the horsemen have now and the Massachusetts breeding program, which registered two foals in 2010. “If the Downs runs less days this year, it won’t run more next year,” he said. “We’ll never see those days again.” Underlying the fight over purses and dates is also the memory of purse reductions last August following the failure of expanded gaming legislation, cuts that left many on the backstretch feeling demoralized.

That the horsemen have legitimate concerns isn’t in question. They’re fighting for their livelihoods, and they’re in a desperate spot. And, of course, there’s the possibility of slots. Everyone wants to hang on, in case …

And yet, Lynne Snierson’s Blood-Horse report on Suffolk’s “militant” horsemen was a stunning read. The NEHBPA’s stance belies broader trends in racing; there are reasons contraction is a hot topic across the industry. The tactic was tried at Rockingham; there is no thoroughbred racing at Rockingham anymore. Suffolk, legislatively freed to run shorter meets, may not run 100-plus day meets again, but horses won’t race at all in East Boston if the track is closed, and very few outside Massachusetts would notice. “If [horsemen] continue to thumb their noses at Suffolk Downs in hopes for a currently non-existent alterative venue in Massachusetts in which to conduct thoroughbred racing,” writes Foolish Pleasure, “do they seriously believe anyone outside of their little circle will care when the lights go out for good there?” A Paulick Report commenter certainly doesn’t: “Good luck running those horses anywhere else.”

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