Thistledown avoids shutdown

CINCINNATI (AP) — Ohio’s busiest thoroughbred race track avoided being shut down Wednesday when its owners made a bond payment that they previously said they might miss.

The Ohio State Racing Commission was poised to close Thistledown race track in suburban Cleveland, halting live racing and simulcasting, if the track didn’t re-establish its minimum bond by Thursday.

The track must maintain a $1 million bond to ensure payment to its creditors.

Thistledown had fallen below that level, and the Magna Entertainment Corp., the track’s parent company had said it couldn’t guarantee that it could make up the roughly $36,000 difference because it is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“Although we were disappointed in the OSRC decision, in the interest of our customers, employees and horsemen, we took the necessary steps to insure that business will be conducted as usual and that Thistledown will remain open,” Brent Reitz, the track’s vice president and general manager, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Racing commission executive director Sam Zonak had said that the panel voted 5-0 on Tuesday to end Thistledown’s thoroughbred meet if Magna failed to make the payment by Thursday’s deadline.

Magna attorney Gregg Scoggins told the commission on Tuesday that he could not guarantee payment because a bankruptcy judge would have to approve it.

Track operators and the racing commission have said for years that racing in Ohio was becoming increasingly untenable because neighboring states subsidize purses with revenue from casinos, or from slot machines at the race tracks.

“People say we’re crying wolf, but you can’t keep going on with these types of losses,” said Mike Weiss, vice president of Beulah Park near Columbus.

“Without some help, you can’t build the product back up.”

Zonak noted that Presque Isle Downs, a new track at Erie, Pa., offers an average of $273,000 a day in purses, while nearby Thistledown can offer only $47,000.

Ohio voters have repeatedly rejected proposals for constitutional amendments to allow increased gambling.

The racing commission currently is pushing a plan to give state lawmakers the authority to approve slot machines at race tracks.

River Downs and Beulah Park said they were threatened by decreasing business even before the problems at Thistledown.

“I know we’re going to struggle through the end of this season, and if the Legislature doesn’t do something to help us, there is a strong, strong likelihood that we’ll shut down,” said Jack Hanessian, general manager at River Downs.

River Downs pays $400,000 a year in property tax, he said, and half of it is due next week.

“That’s hard to do when your business keeps decreasing 15-16 percent year after year,” Hanessian said.

Weiss said if Thistledown were to close, that would seal the fate of thoroughbred racing in Ohio, which also has four harness tracks.

“This is just the start,” Weiss said. “Any further step backward is a step closer to our demise.”