Posted on Sun, Oct. 14, 2012
Above: Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association at Calder Race Track in Miami Gardens, visits the thorougbred Philourpockets. (Photo: Joe Rimkus Jr. / Miami Herald Staff)
By ELAINE WALKER
Today, it’s the slot machines, more than the races, that draw crowds to the major horse tracks in South Florida.
Yet, statewide the horse industry still generates an economic impact of about $5.1 billion and nearly half of that comes from racing. At South Florida’s major tracks like Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park there are thousands of people who depend on horses to make their living, from trainers and grooms to blacksmiths and veterinarians.
But in many ways the industry sits at a crossroads and the leaders of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association are fighting for the livelihood of their members. The trade association represents the 5,500 horse owners and trainers who race in South Florida at both the Calder Casino & Race Course and Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino.
The Miami Herald recently met with Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, to discuss what’s happening in racing today. Then we asked him to respond to our written questions. Here’s an edited version of what he had to say:
Q: How did you get involved in the horse and pari-mutuel industry?
I grew up on a farm and both of my parents and my sister were talented show horse riders. I didn’t much care for jumping show horses, so when I was 16 I went to old Randall Park in Cleveland and worked as a hot walker for thoroughbred race horse trainer Jerry Caruso. By the time I went into the Air Force, I had spent a few more summers working with racehorses when home from college. After four years of sitting behind a desk in the U.S. Air Force, I knew I wanted to work outside. Since I love animals, becoming a thoroughbred horse trainer. It seemed like the perfect job.
Q: How many people are currently employed by the thoroughbred industry?
Somewhere in excess of 50,000 people are employed in Florida’s thoroughbred racing industry.
Q: Are most people in the industry still making money today? Why or why not?
Each year fewer and fewer owners and trainers in Florida are making a profit. I would guess that very few of the owners and trainers that race year-round in Florida are making any money. Of the trainers stabled year ‘round in Florida at Calder, I would estimate that 90 percent of them are broke or headed in that direction. This is because the purses at Calder have not increased in the last 10 years. Since Calder doesn’t do much in the way of advertising their racing, the pari-mutuel handle declines every year and the revenue from slots earmarked for purses barely covers the loss from the shrinking revenue from declining wagering on racing. I know you are questioning my stating that 90 percent of the trainers at Calder are broke or going broke, because you are wondering why would they remain in the industry under such circumstances? The fact is, this sport really is a labor of love. These people believe that the “big” horse who will turn rags into riches is just around the corner, if you hang in there for one more year.
Q: Do you see the horse industry currently at a crossroads? Why?
I think the worst thing that has happened to racing in my lifetime is the acquisition of tracks by large companies like Churchill Downs (CDI), Penn Gaming and the privately owned Stronach Group (formerly Magna Entertainment). These groups are focused entirely on their bottom line to keep their stockholders happy. All of these corporations used racing and the strong efforts and financial contributions of their horsemen to legally acquire different forms of alternative gaming such as slots. But within a few years of being permitted to hold alternative gaming, these tracks began working on ways to keep these newfound gaming revenues for themselves. This meant casting off the horsemen, their “partners.”
Q: What kind of economic impact does the horse industry have on South Florida and Florida today?
The horse racing industry has a $2.2 billion annual statewide economic impact, but that is boosted especially in South Florida during the winter months when Gulfstream conducts by far the best racing in the winter in North America. Numerous Kentucky Derby winners and other Triple Crown race winners begin their careers at Gulfstream Park and these horses attract many “snowbirds” to South Florida. The Ocala area still boasts one of the major horse breeding centers in North America, but it is slowly shrinking as other states offer better year-round racing with higher purses than Florida.
Q: How much demand / interest still exists today among consumers in South Florida and Florida for horse racing?
Gulfstream still creates very strong interest in racing, because they hold excellent racing and promote it substantially. Calder has always been the “two-year-old capital” of North America, but with stagnant purses and no marketing of their product, they are losing many of their two-year-olds to northern tracks. There still exists a significant demand and interest in Florida-bred horses, because they win some of the country’s most prestigious races and continue to outrun their pedigrees.
Q: Who are your target customers and how often do they visit?
Our target customer at Gulfstream Park is in the 30-to-50 age range. Racing in general seems to have lost a generation or two of fans when most tracks’ philosophy was pretty much “open our doors and they will come.” Well, “they” didn’t come, and other sports and forms of entertainment advertised and used new mediums such as television, which racing ignored for years.. It’s really tough, even for Gulfstream, to draw people to wager on weekdays when times are hard as they are today. Unfortunately, by Florida law, thoroughbred horse racing can’t run races at night.
Q: What do you think has caused the drop in consumer interest?
Consumer interest began dropping about 50 years ago — a time when thoroughbred racing was the number-one attended sport in North America. That’s right, racing drew more attendance than either Major League Baseball, college football or the NFL. Racing was the only sport that could be legally wagered on, and this “monopoly” led to the “open our doors and they will come” philosophy as racing mistakenly eschewed spending money to have its product on television.
Q: How have slots helped or hurt the horse racing industry?
Slots have helped racing, in that they have increased purses at Gulfstream and kept purses from dropping at Calder. They have hurt the industry, because what “partnership” we horsemen had with the tracks has been or is seemingly being corrupted by their corporate bottom line.
Q: How is online betting impacting your business?
On-line betting (ADW), has pretty much destroyed our on-track business by making it easier and more profitable (via rebates) for fans to wager without coming to the tracks. Since the two tracks in question each have their own ADW company, they cannibalize our on-track business. Where before, horsemen would get 10 cents on every dollar wagered on track, they now settle for 3 or 4 cents on the dollar when the bets are placed through a track-owned ADW.
Q: What would happen to the horse racing industry if legislation were passed allowing destination casinos?
Obviously destination casinos would not help our industry, inasmuch as they would have more and better alternative gaming to offer than our tracks. They would have a giant profit margin and economic advantage, because they would most likely be required to pay nothing to purses as our tracks are currently required to do from slot revenues. Gulfstream would like to be a destination casino, but I am not convinced that would be as helpful to racing as some might think.
Q: We know you are supporting litigation to put an end to barrel racing currently taking place in Gretna, a small town in North Florida. How is this form of racing threatening the livelihood of your industry?
The “Gretna Model” purposefully eliminates the need for thousands of horses and denies the horsemen’s rights under the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, which mandates that horsemen must consent to the track’s simulcast signal being sent across state lines for wagering purposes. Here is how it could threaten our industry: Gulfstream Park has a quarter horse permit, with which they conduct unsanctioned “flag drops,” or “pari-mutuel barrel racing,” using only two horses per day. Then they build a large, beautiful slots facility and connect it to the arena. Now they don’t need to pay thoroughbred purses. .Track-owned “barrel racers” have displayed in Gretna that they are happy with $2,000 a day divided up over 8 races. To compare, Gulfstream currently pays daily purses of well over $400,000 to the thoroughbreds. Q: Explain how thoroughbred and quarter horse racing are different than what’s happening at Gretna and other tracks with “pari-mutuel barrel racing?”
Thoroughbreds and quarter horses are two distinct breeds that each have their own industry in the U.S. Quarter horses typically run shorter races … about a quarter of a mile. is somewhat typical. Thoroughbreds basically race from five-eighths of a mile to a mile and a quarter. Both industries need about 1,500 or more horses to conduct a normal race meet, with every three or four horses requiring at least two or three people to care directly for them. Plus, both industries have large breeding industries in Florida that employ even more people than at the races.
Q: What kind of industry job loss are you looking at in South Florida and the entire state if “pari-mutuel barrel racing” is allowed?
If “pari-mutuel barrel racing” and similar unsanctioned events are legally upheld, legitimate racing will die almost immediately, since track owners will no longer be obligated to have events requiring the traditional volume of horses. The owners and trainers will move to other states with higher purses almost immediately. All the breeding farms in Ocala will close down and their breeding operations will then move to another state. Similar circumstances with unregulated gambling are already causing a mass exodus of the horse racing industry in Texas as we speak.
Q: What’s your favorite horse track in the country and why?
People that know me will be shocked, as will John Brunetti Sr., but my favorite track in America was, and still probably is Hialeah Park. It was once the most beautiful track in the world and I had my greatest successes there, as one of my horses won the Grade 1 Hialeah Turf Cup twice.