Friday, January 23-Ocean Downs, Horsemen In Contract Squabble

BERLIN – The future of Ocean Downs remains uncertain this week as contract negotiations have stalled, with the track owners accusing the horsemen of holding out for a larger share of the potential slots proceeds, and the horsemen accusing the owners of closing down training areas as part of a long-term effort to eliminate live racing at the historic Berlin track.

Track officials announced on Dec. 31 they would be forced to suspend simulcast wagering at the racetrack on Route 589 in Berlin, and at the company’s off-track betting location, the Cambridge Turf Club, as of Jan. 1, pending the resolution of a contract issue with the Ocean Downs horsemen. The contract impasse arose when track owner William Rickman, Jr. informed the horsemen, allegedly in the 11th hour of the negotiations, the “Backstretch” area of the facility, including the sandy practice track and some of the barn areas would close at the end of August 2009.

When Ocean Downs included the closure of the backstretch areas in the new contract in late December, talks broke off between the track owners and the horsemen. The Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, which represents the horsemen, then withdrew its consent for simulcasting at Ocean Downs and the offsite betting venue, the Cambridge Turf Club, also owned by Rickman.

According to the Interstate Horseracing Act, Cloverleaf, and by association, the horsemen, hold sway over where and when simulcast racing and betting can be broadcast, and when contract talks between Ocean Downs and Cloverleaf broke down just before New Year’s, the latter withdrew its consent for simulcasting at the track and at the Cambridge Turf Club.

Last week, Ocean Downs officials announced the contract talks have not resumed after Cloverleaf indicated the organization wants a bigger share of the potential slots proceeds than called for in the state’s video lottery referendum.

Rickman last week accused the horsemen of derailing the contract that will ensure live racing continues at the facility because of their desire to grab a share of the potential revenue the track ultimately receives from slots.

“In discussions today [last Thursday], Cloverleaf demonstrated that it has no interest in racing, but rather is determined to force Ocean Downs to close,” he said. “Apparently, the purse enhancements guaranteed horsemen through the slots referendum isn’t enough for Cloverleaf, which now seems to want a share of any potential video lottery proceeds that will be earned at Ocean Downs if we are granted a license.”

Meanwhile, Cloverleaf officials said this week Rickman and Ocean Downs officials added the clause about closing the backstretch at the very end of the contract negotiations just before the holidays, which forced the organization to pull the plug on simulcasting until the issue could be resolved. Cloverleaf officials said they countered with an offer to accept the original contract with a clause added to close the backstretch after Dec. 31, 2009. The horsemen’s association also wanted a guarantee, in the form of a letter of intent, from Ocean Downs to continue live racing if the track receives a slots license.

Rickman said he had no intention of ending live racing at Ocean Downs and offered the desired letter of intent outlining his position to Cloverleaf, but the horsemen refused his overture.

“Cloverleaf asked me to give them a letter stating my intention to race 40 days a year and I gave them that letter,” he said. “I even agreed to race for 15 years, the length of the video lottery operation license. I gave them what they wanted. In return, I asked for assurances that if we invest the millions of dollars required to set up video lottery operations, they will adhere to the state slots statute and not make any unreasonable demands to share Ocean Downs’ potential video lottery proceeds. Cloverleaf refused.”

Rickman further said Ocean Downs has every intention of continuing racing, but the track “would not be held hostage by Cloverleaf’s hidden agenda that is preventing us from moving forward and opening our operations.”

Cloverleaf, meanwhile, has said Rickman’s accusations of the horsemen attempting to hold the track hostage in order to gain a share of the potential slots revenue are simply unfounded. The horsemen’s association said this week the issue of slots and the potential revenue were never part of the negotiation for a new contract.

“This is far from the truth,” said Cloverleaf President Thomas Cooke. “At no time have I, as the principal negotiator for Cloverleaf, suggested to Mr. Rickman that the horsemen were requesting a portion of his profits. The issue of slots and slots revenue were not part of the 2009 contract negotiations.”

Cooke said despite Rickman’s claims of the horsemen’s refusal of his offer, Cloverleaf would gladly accept an offer to continue live racing at Ocean Downs for the life of the potential slots license, but that overture has never come.

“If Mr. Rickman would like to offer a 15-year contract dealing with all of the issues, Cloverleaf would consider same,” he said. “At no time has Mr. Rickman offered a 15-year contract including all of the relevant terms and conditions.”