Laurel Park is one of the Monarch Content Management tracks whose signal is not available at those facilities that are members of the Mid Atlantic Cooperative.

by Linda Dougherty

Simulcast players in the mid-Atlantic region who have been feeling the sting of not being able to watch and wager on tracks such as Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita and Laurel Park for the last several months may soon have reason to celebrate.

The impasse between Monarch Content Management, which controls the rights to more than a dozen racetracks, including those owned by the Stronach Group, and the Mid Atlantic Cooperative, a purchasing collective of 22 Thoroughbred and standardbred tracks that joined together in 1999 to increase their leverage in simulcast negotiations, could be on the brink of resolution, leaders of both organizations indicated February 5.

The dispute, which came to a head in early December with Monarch pulling its signals from Mid Atlantic members after negotiations for a new agreement with Mid Atlantic broke down, is chiefly over rate increases and who pays them.

It’s come at a time when the current crop of 3-year-olds are gearing up for the Triple Crown in major prep races contested at Stronach venues, and has been a source of irritation for many horseplayers in the affected regions.

In addition to Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Laurel Park, Mid Atlantic member tracks – including Parx Racing and Penn National in Pennsylvania, Delaware Park, Charles Town, and numerous harness tracks and other facilities – have been unable to offer wagering on Golden Gate, Tampa Bay, Los Alamitos, the Meadowlands, Portland Meadows, and Turf Paradise.

“We’re continuing to talk with the Mid Atlantic Cooperative,” said Scott Daruty, president of Monarch, on February 5. “We’ve exchanged proposals in the last week or so, and we’re working towards a resolution. We realize fans are being inconvenienced and want them back wagering on our racetracks.”

“We’ve moved the needle on several issues,” said Phil O’Hara, the executive director of the Mid Atlantic Cooperative, who characterized the sides as “close.” He added, “We’re making good progress.”

Neither would specify those areas on which there has been progress.

Many Mid Atlantic tracks have taken a significant hit on their simulcast business, especially because warm-weather sites such as Gulfstream and Santa Anita are so popular during the winter with horseplayers in cold weather climates.  

On the flip side, however, Laurel Park has been experiencing an uptick in business.

“We are actually up handle-wise a few points, and, after 24 consecutive months of being down, are actually up every month since December,” said Sal Sinatra, vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club. “We have met several players from Delaware that have driven down on the weekends. Gulfstream and Santa Anita are up as well. It looks as though money has been shifting to the ADWs from the mid-Atlantic tracks, and we are benefitting.”

Chris McErlean, vice president of Penn National Gaming, said he wasn’t authorized to speak about business at Penn National properties since not being able to offer Monarch products.

But O’Hara said that nearly every Mid Atlantic member has been challenged during the signal blackout.

“When you factor in all the cancellations of live racing due to bad weather, they’ve really been impacted,” said O’Hara.

Prior to the closure of Atlantic City Race Course on January 16, the Mid Atlantic Cooperative represented 23 members, including Parx Racing, Penn National, Freehold Raceway, Delaware Park, Charles Town, Colonial Downs, Pocono Downs, Harrah’s Philadelphia, Dover Downs, Harrington Raceway, Ocean Downs, Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, Rosecroft, Sam Houston, Thistledown, Mahoning Valley Race Course, Dayton Raceway, Northfield Park, Retama Park, Belterra Park and Plainridge Race Course.

One of the key sticking points in the Monarch-Mid Atlantic dispute is that Monarch feels too many members of the Cooperative do not present live Thoroughbred racing, and thus retain more takeout than those that do present live Thoroughbred racing, who have to split takeout with horsemen for purses.

Daruty had previously stated that Monarch was seeking to change the structure of the contract in order to charge some sites, specifically those that do not offer live Thoroughbred racing, a higher rate than others.

Mid Atlantic has countered by stating that it has accepted premium pricing for Monarch content since its first year in existence, and that many of its non-Thoroughbred members pay millions of dollars by statute or contract to Thoroughbred purse funds and breeding programs.  It has not thus far been willing to agree to different rates for different members.

The Stronach Group also owns HRTV and the account wagering company, which means that it could potentially benefit from the Mid Atlantic blackout. If a Mid Atlantic customer does not face a state-based restriction, he or she can open an account with and wager on the Monarch tracks.

There are no restrictions in Delaware or Virginia; in Pennsylvania, however, residents located within 35 miles of Parx, Penn National, Pocono Downs, Harrah’s Philadelphia, or Presque Isle Downs are prohibited from opening accounts. New Jersey allows account wagering only through its website, thus precluding an Xpressbet account.  Other advance deposit wagering companies also afford access to Monarch tracks.

Of course, many bettors prefer the off-track facility experience, rather than wagering online.  Angry horseplayers have contacted O’Hara directly about their inability to wager on the top-class racing that many Monarch tracks offer.

“I have talked to many of them; as a horseplayer myself, I understand where they’re coming from,” said O’Hara.

Linda Dougherty has been writing about horse racing since 1990 for publications such as Daily Racing Form, The Blood-Horse and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. Follow her on Twitter @PaThoroughbred.