As my wife and I were watching movers pack up our old apartment in Las Vegas, my phone blew up with angry reaction to a development that had become tiringly familiar lately.
“No Indiana Grand for Nevada horseplayers,” was the gist of one Tweet.
“Such a petty disservice in an industry that needs every ounce of interest/attraction it can muster,” was another reaction. It went on in another Tweet. “J-O-K-E. An issue for how many years?”
You can take the boy out of Las Vegas, but you cannot take the dispute between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and Churchill Downs Inc. out of the boy. For the record this is the 538th day it has droned on with no end in sight. No one on either side wants to go on the record and openly negotiate through the media. Thus all the cloak and dagger here with sources and insiders and such.
“It doesn’t appear they’re any closer; they’re probably farther,” said one Las Vegas gaming executive with knowledge of the negotiations – or lack thereof. “Nevada is going to end up booking the Derby like it did last year.”
What does this have to do with Indiana Grand? It happens to be one of a growing number of racetracks paying Churchill Downs Inc. to negotiate what were originally known as simulcast signals. When Indiana Grand’s opening day came this week without being made available in Nevada for the second year in a row, it triggered the flare-up on social media.
“The people in charge of this on both sides are big jerks,” read another Tweet. Actually, it did not say “jerks.” The eight-letter word was saltier than that.
Indiana Grand and Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park and Turfway Park and Delta Downs and Louisiana Downs and Arlington Park will remain unavailable through Nevada racebooks. I may be missing one or two others. Oh, yes. Churchill Downs.
Just like last summer, the cartel of Nevada racebooks is preparing to book the Kentucky Derby on its own. Legally, the shops must honor the mutuel prices shown on the Churchill Downs tote board, even though their dollars and especially their risk will not be absorbed into the worldwide betting pool.
“We’re going to find out what we could book next week on (Friday),” another Nevada source said. “We’ll need Nevada (Board of) Gaming approval if we don’t come to an agreement.”
Expect a replay of last September, when there was win, place and show betting. And exacta and trifecta wagering. But no superfectas. And no multi-race horizontals on the Churchill cards. Oh, yes, there will be hard limits that vary from house to house on how much money may be won. For example, the 50-cent Derby trifecta paid $655.90 almost everywhere last September – except in Nevada, where some shops limited the return to as little less than half that.
“It’s probably going to look the same,” the source said, “because there’s nothing new on the negotiation front.”
Of course, money is the issue dividing Churchill Downs and Nevada. So, too, are their respective positions. A long-time Kentucky insider recently told VSiN that when state regulators allowed Las Vegas casinos to book the Derby on their own last summer, they felt emboldened to tell CDI to come and get it – but only on their terms.
“I don’t know if they think that was leverage,” the insider said, “but it got back to the same kind of issues that have come up all along.”
From the CDI view, those issues include expenses that Nevada wants to deflect to Kentucky. They include what longtime NPMA executive director Patty Jones outlined in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month, referring to “discounted past performances, comfortable places to sit and watch multiple races, complimentary drinks and club memberships with benefits” that could go away if CDI got its way.
Not mentioned were the cost to pay a licensed disseminator, that unique layer of outmoded Nevada bureaucracy designed decades ago to ensure the proper posting of results and mutuels before every race was on phones and tablets and every chart was on Equibase. It also did not mention Jones’s own salary as an executive who has spent close to 30 years on the job.
The pushback from CDI was that everyone has expenses, but not everyone is faced with licensed disseminators. “Nevada is the only jurisdiction where they have to deal with something like that,” the Kentucky insider said. “That’s one of the thorns in their sides. They push off that dissemination cost.”
The two sides agree on little. One exception is they both acknowledge there was a call made last winter to try and get back to bargaining. It came from Jones in either late January or early February, around the time the new season began at Oaklawn. Whether new ground was broken was another matter.
“It got back into the same kind of issues that came up before,” the Kentucky insider said.
One version of the story was that Jones tried to side-step CDI and talk directly with executives at Oaklawn. She was apparently referred right back to Louisville. All this is said to have led Churchill to do some research on the most recent Nevada handle at Oaklawn. It was discovered that after horsemen got their share of the takeout and the NPMA was paid its expenses, the track lost money on the deal.
“When Churchill looked at it,” the Kentucky source said, “they couldn’t believe they had been sending the signal there and losing money every year.”
Not surprisingly, Nevada did not see it that way and countered that every racing jurisdiction will bake expenses into any contract negotiation, whether it is with horsemen, contractors or, yes, CDI.
“Here’s the thing,” the Las Vegas gaming executive said. “Anybody can charge whatever they want. Anybody can pay whatever they want. At the end of the day you’ve got people digging in their heels on both sides.”
The adamant positions apparently include Churchill’s insistence on taking half the takeout from Nevada on Derby day. Sources from both Kentucky and Nevada do not dispute that, especially since it appears to be the going rate being paid to CDI from other states. Churchill’s take for races the rest of the year from its tracks was said by a Nevada source last year to have been around 6¾ percent.
So after 538 days the two sides continue to paint the other as either a bully (CDI) or petty (NPMA). It is not just horseplayers who are caught in the middle. Casino owners are, too.
“Indiana Grand is owned by Boyd Gaming,” the casino boss said. “Delta Downs is owned by Boyd Gaming. Caesars technically owns Louisiana Downs. Those tracks have contracted with Churchill to be their simulcast negotiator, but because of that you’ve got parent companies here in Nevada who own the tracks who can’t even take bets on them.”
It is just another log on the fire that is burning down any desire for horseplayers and even tourists to flock to Nevada to bet the Derby or linger in Las Vegas or Tahoe or Winnemucca or wherever to bet on races the other 364 days of the year.
“You’re going to see less and less horse racing in Nevada,” the casino source said. “There’s no racing at the new Virgin property that was the old Hard Rock. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be horse racing at the new $4 billion Resorts World. The ripple effect is that when people are betting on the Kentucky Derby, the ultimate American horse race, if it’s not there, other horse wagers get impacted, and people migrate over to other sports and to table games and slots.”
Hard to believe, isn’t it? Sitting for one night in Tulsa as my wife and I en route to a new home in Louisville, we are actually someplace that is friendlier to the horseplayer than the reputed gambling capital of the world.
Chew on that for about 538 days.
Racing notes and opinions
My first visit this weekend to Oaklawn will be highlighted by what might as well be a match race between Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver in the $1 million Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap on a dry-weather Saturday at 7:09 p.m. EDT. There are four other fillies and mares in the 8½-furlong race, but my chalk-covered exacta box is with the two stars that have won a combined three Eclipse Awards. Monomoy Girl (1-1) won her 6-year-old debut convincingly in the slop Feb. 28, cruising in the Grade 3 Bayakoa at Oaklawn. Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver (2-1) made her 4-year-old debut a winning one last month at Santa Anita in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile. This is a rematch of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, which Monomoy Girl won, and Swiss Skydiver was left a troubled, scuffed-up seventh. Starting from outside, Monomoy Girl carries Florent Géroux and a total of 124 pounds; Swiss Skydiver drew post 2 with Robby Albarado and 122 pounds. The 5-year-old Letruska (4-1), a multiple graded-stakes winner, should get the early lead with Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver lurking. Swiss Skydiver actually appears to be the faster horse. If she can avoid the trouble she experienced last fall at Keeneland, she has every chance of scoring the upset victory. But I will still box her with Monomoy Girl in the first two spots of a trifecta and put 5-year-old closer Getridofwhatailesu (6-1) underneath a cold third.
Essential Quality (5-2 Circa Sports, 3-1 William Hill Nevada) continues to be the heavy futures favorite for the Kentucky Derby. With perhaps a dose of recency bias, Florida Derby winner Known Agenda (6-1, 5-1) and Santa Anita Derby victor Rock Your World (6-1, 5-1) are the co-second choices. After his confounding, third-place performance in the Arkansas Derby, Concert Tour (8-1, 10-1) remains a question mark to go to Churchill Downs. Owner Gary West and trainer Bob Baffert have been saying they are not sure yet. Seriously, is Baffert going to go to the Derby with only Medina Spirit (14-1, 14-1), a horse that is becoming a poster child for second- and third-itis? There has been the suggestion that Baffert might not have a Derby horse for the first time in four years. I will believe that when I see it.
A fire Tuesday at Belmont Park killed two horses trained by Wayne Potts. Graded-stakes-winning 9-year-old gelding American Sailor and unraced 3-year-old colt Beastie D were among the 60 horses that were inside that barn that caught fire in the afternoon. The other 58 were rescued and relocated. The New York state fire marshal is still working on what started it. It is hard to imagine something more helplessly frightening than a barn fire with dozens of confused animals weighing a combined 35-40 tons running for their lives. This story recalled the fire that swept through San Luis Rey Downs in California more than three years ago, killing 46 horses. And it brought back the memory of other stable fires that have come and gone over time. Sigh.
On Wednesday afternoon I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Ariz. Seriously, with a nod to the Eagles including the late Glenn Frey and to co-writer Jackson Browne (I had forgotten that), I really was at Second Street and Kinsley Avenue. Such a fine sight? A girl, my Lord, in a black Lexus refused to take a picture of me. My wife felt like she would be enabling the equivalent of a pushy tourist in Times Square. Nevertheless, I posted what was literally a pedestrian selfie, to which one wag asked, “Did you loosen your load?” Wag, by the way, is another term for a six-time Kentucky Derby winner.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the road to Louisville, this week’s RFRP originates from Tulsa, Okla., with conversations ranging from racing’s momentum during COVID to a big race this weekend. It features Nate Newby, the general manager of Santa Anita; Monomoy Girl’s trainer Brad Cox ahead of this weekend’s Apple Blossom showdown with Swiss Skydiver, and Horse Racing Radio Network’s Dan Mason and Horse Racing Nation CEO Mark Midland. The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.