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At last, a breakthrough between Churchill and Nevada

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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Three tracks that had been blacked out in Nevada by Churchill Downs are available to bettors again, ending at least part of an impasse that has lasted more than two years. (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

It took 767 days, a secret meeting last week in Arizona and an angry boss in Arkansas to get Churchill Downs Inc. and Nevada racebooks to end much if not all their go-nowhere dispute over simulcast money.

As Mike Brunker first reported Wednesday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada bettors are able to wager again on races at Turfway Park, Fair Grounds and Oaklawn. The tracks’ signals and mutuel pools were unshackled to coincide with the start of their new seasons late this week.

“We are thrilled that the Nevada horseplayers will have access to these great products,” a CDI spokeswoman said in a written statement Thursday morning. “We look forward to continuing the ongoing discussions with our partners at the NPMA on a long-term arrangement for these tracks.”

Betting on the Kentucky Derby and other races at Churchill Downs itself are the centerpiece for those “ongoing discussions.” One Las Vegas casino source was optimistic a framework already was in place that will result in a full Derby wagering menu being available to Nevada bettors for the first time since 2019.

“It’s still to be written,” the source said, “but I would think we have a deal for the Derby, too.”

That same source told VSiN that the two sides, led by Patty Jones of the NPMA and Patrick Troutman of CDI, met in Arizona last week to finalize details that came out of negotiations reignited three months ago. “This announcement was pre-planned,” the source said.

Oaklawn apparently broke the thaw. Four sources from across the country told VSiN that Louis Cella, whose family has operated the track since building it in 1904, did not want another day to pass without Nevada money in its mutuel pools. Although CDI does not own Oaklawn, it is contracted to negotiate the track’s simulcast rights.

As another Las Vegas casino insider put it, “These tracks who make deals with Churchill are saying they don’t want to be dragged into one of their old disputes.”

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to make statements for either side. Furthermore, an Oaklawn spokeswoman said she could not talk about this development, there was no further comment from CDI, and Jones and Troutman did not return telephone messages left Thursday morning.

Of course this is all about money. What isn’t? As reported here and elsewhere summe ad nauseam, the bone of contention for more than two years has been how to divide the takeout dollars coming from Nevada into the tracks controlled by CDI.

Specific details of the contract with Fair Grounds, Oaklawn and Turfway were not clear; two Las Vegas sources offered differing versions of how the money would be split. One said, “There was no way Churchill was going to take less than it was getting under the old deal,” which lapsed in the fall of 2019.

The bigger beef in the dispute has been over the 50 percent Churchill had been demanding from Nevada’s takeout on the Kentucky Derby, a rate it said it has been getting from deals with simulcast operators in other states.

The truth is both sides have lost in all this, although it really is small potatoes. Although the state government will not break down the numbers, whatever Nevada’s wildcat racebooks netted during the last two runnings of the Derby had to pale by comparison to the old days, when they were part of the enormous mutuel pot.

Even then it was a drop in any proverbial bucket. In 2019 Nevada accounted for about 2 percent of the total handle on Derby day. That was the year all sources gathered a record $250,900,257 in handle. Apply that 2 percent figure now to the 63 licensees that book racing in Nevada. That comes to an average of $79,650. Churchill’s half, the amount in dispute, comes out to $39,825 per casino.

Seriously? This was all about $39,825? Slot-machine revenue would cover that in less than one work shift. That is no exaggeration. Divide the $1.2 billion house hold in October, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, by the 267 license holders that have machines. It would take only 6½ hours of cherries not lining up to collect all the nickels Churchill Downs has demanded.

Not to make CDI look like an angel here. It, too, could have found a middle ground much sooner to let the gambling capital of the world contribute to its mutuel pool, especially since Churchill collects upwards of $50 million in takeout on Derby day. The 2 percent from Nevada would have meant about $1 million that it proposed to split with the casinos. If that had come down to, say, $800,000, what kind of dent would that have made for a company whose stock went from $83 a share in January 2019 to $230 now? CDI ain’t hurting. Especially after Thursday’s news about the potential sale of TwinSpires. (See below.)

The damage may be irreparable. Go back to that number of racebooks in the Nevada. It is 63. When all this began it was 66. Yes, there was a little something called a pandemic that may have been a factor in that drop. But think of how it looked to bettors when the list of unavailable tracks often outnumbered those that were open to wagers in Nevada racebooks. Regardless of who was at fault, the image of Nevada not offering every race at every track is like a tattoo burned into the flesh of every book in the state.

This is not like a labor stoppage in a major sport. Fans say they will never come back to football and basketball and baseball and hockey, but they do. Horse racing does not enjoy that big a following anymore, especially among bettors, especially in Nevada. The exodus of interest in racing is palpable and ongoing.

Can the 2022 Kentucky Derby with its attendant mint juleps and spring bloom reinvigorate what has been scorched the last 767 days? That is a 2-1 proposition at best.

Racing notes and opinions

On the one hand, the $750,000 Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap on Saturday at 4:13 p.m. EST at Aqueduct looks very competitive. On the other, it features eight horses that are, in the Italian vernacular, mezzo mezzo. For instance, morning-line favorite Americanrevolution (5-2) has won three of his last four races, but those were all restricted to New York-state breds. The exception was a distant third to Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon in the Pennsylvania Derby. Independence Hall (7-2), carrying the top weight of 122 pounds, brought early speed in winning a sloppy running of the Fayette on Oct. 30 at Keeneland. Following Sea (5-1) drew the rail Saturday and might set the early pace under John Velázquez. Code Of Honor (6-1) has only one win in his last eight starts, and his success seems to depend on an honest but not torrid pace. I will key Ginóbili (7-2), who has improved dramatically since Richard Baltas added blinkers three race ago. He had back-to-back wins before finishing second to Life Is Good in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. The hope is he and jockey Drayden Van Dyke stalk the pace the way they did in winning the Pat O’Brien during the Del Mar summer. While I will box him with Following Sea, Independence Hall and maybe Code Of Honor, I will put most of my stake in win and place bets with Ginóbili. Saturday in New York is forecast by the National Weather Service to be mostly sunny with a high of 47 degrees and a 7-15 mph west wind crossing from the Aqueduct grandstand to the backstretch.

It has been going on 27 years since the $250,000 Grade 2 Remsen Stakes produced a Kentucky Derby winner. That was Thunder Gulch. Mucho Macho Man was the last horse to hit the board in both races, and that was nearly 12 years ago. The moral to this story is do not go crazy thinking Saturday’s 10-4-2-1 Derby points prep at Aqueduct is a bellwether for Churchill Downs on May 7. On its own merit this weekend’s 1⅛-mile test looks like it could be a two-horse race between maiden victors Mo Donegal (8-5) and Zandon (5-2). I will try to beat them with another one-time winner, Who Hoo Thats Me (6-1). He made a strong, late bid to finish third in the Oct. 30 Sleepy Hollow in spite a poor start and the Belmont slop. Trevor McCarthy rides the Keen Ice colt for the first time for trainer Jorge Abreu. The Remsen starts at 3:14 p.m. EST.

Nest (2-1) has that Curlin-A.P. Indy pedigree. Tap The Faith (3-1) looks like she will love stretching to 1⅛ miles. Magic Circle (7-2) already faced likely division champion Echo Zulu in a Grade 1 race. They will attract most of the money in a competitive running of the $250,000 Grade 2 Demoiselle on Saturday at 3:43 p.m. EST at Aqueduct. But one’s eyes have a way of being diverted to an apparent overlay in this 10-4-2-1 prep for the Kentucky Oaks. If Nest is Todd Pletcher’s main filly, then Miss Interpret (10-1) on the rail is the “other Pletcher.” She had finished second, first and first in consecutive races, including a win in a seven-furlong stakes at Saratoga. Miss Interpret’s most recent impression was a disinterested eighth in the Grade 1 Alcibiades at Keeneland. I will draw a line through that, rustle up some hope and make a win-place bet on Miss Interpret in the Demoiselle. Nest, Tap The Faith and Magic Circle will be included in vertical boxes.

Can Cairo Memories translate her turf success to the dirt? Can Eda run her winning streak for trainer Bob Baffert to three by stretching herself out to 8½ furlongs? Those are the questions bettors have to ask themselves about Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Starlet Stakes, a 10-4-2-1 prep at Los Alamitos for the Oaks. It actually makes more sense to look at Grade Adler and Benedict Canyon, especially since Baffert has won the last four runnings of the Starlet, and the “other” Baffert is often a winning value play. Benedict Canyon might show early speed, but her numbers are not that good. Already a Grade 1 winner in this summer’s Del Mar Futurity, Grace Adler is my choice with Benedict Canyon, Cairo Memories and Eda filling out exotics. With typically good southern California weather expected, the Starlet is carded for Saturday at 7 p.m. EST.

All too familiar news came out of Laurel Park in Maryland on Thursday with the announcement that the deaths of seven horses on the main track in the past four weeks have led to racing being canceled there this weekend. Thoroughbred Daily News was the first to report this spate of breakdowns that included an eighth horse earlier this fall. This unfortunately is déjà vu for The Stronach Group, which owns Laurel. It had to deal the deaths of 37 horses during the 2018-19 season at Santa Anita. This time the problem may be more obvious since the dirt track was completely replaced this summer after it had deteriorated so badly that Laurel’s 2020-21 meet was abbreviated. An investigation already has begun to figure out what went wrong – and how soon racing may resume safely.

Churchill Downs Inc. might be selling its TwinSpires betting operation. The company would not comment on a Bloomberg report that the advanced-deposit wagering platform might be worth $1.5 billion, which is about one-sixth the value of the company. CDI shares rose 6 percent to close Thursday at $230.02 on NASDAQ. TwinSpires is a competitor to VSiN sponsor 1/ST Bet.

The deal between CDI and the NPMA is good news for the NTRA and its running of the NHC. If you had all those letters in Scrabble, you could get 16 points spelling “handicap.” Otherwise, they say that the National Horseplayers Championship, scheduled for Jan. 28-30 at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel, will have the full complement of tracks available to players. “It seems like a major step forward and good news for the horseplayers out there,” National Thoroughbred Racing Association chief operating officer Keith Chamblin said Thursday. “This is very positive for everyone involved.” Chamblin said the NTRA was about to ask the Nevada Gaming Control Board for an exemption that would have allowed the NHC to have mythical bets on those racetracks. Now that is a moot point.

Friday marks 120 days since Gov. Phil Murphy signed fixed-odds horse wagering into law in New Jersey, yet there is still no fixed-odds horse wagering. Carry on.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale discussing his $13,000 worth of bets in last weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Anthony Stabile of the New York Racing Association previews Saturday’s Cigar Mile card at Aqueduct. Paul Zilm talks about Circa Sports’ opening Derby futures, and he handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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