Depending on whom you ask, the prospects for horse racing at Idaho Downs (formerly Les Bois Park) are either slim to none or just a handshake away from becoming a reality.
But five months after Ada County awarded the rights to operate Boise's racetrack to Idaho Entertainment, the company remains stuck in negotiations with a local horsemen's group that must agree to a contract before the state can issue a license for live horse racing. The live-racing license is necessary to get a similar license for simulcast racing, so no racing events of any kind are figuring into the future of Idaho Downs any time soon.
In a November letter to the Idaho State Racing Commission, Idaho Entertainment president Eric Spector wrote that his company is "prudently seeking other forms of entertainment and uses of our facilities at Expo Idaho." Spector did not return phone calls from Boise Weekly, but according to Idaho Entertainment owner T. Pat Stubbs, the racetrack that has been home to horse racing since the 1970s could soon be used for concerts.
Horse owners are not happy with that plan.
"The lease does not provide for doing concerts. The county should consider Eric Spector to be in default of the lease. They should terminate the lease and invite others who are interested to step forward," said Tim Elison, a member of the board of directors for the Idaho Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the group that is negotiating with Idaho Entertainment.
If you talk to Elison, Idaho Entertainment and the Idaho HBPA remain far apart on reaching any agreement soon--23 contested issues away, to be exact. But for Stubbs, who says he remains committed to bringing live horse racing to Boise, the two parties "are far closer to an agreement than the HBPA wants to admit."
"These are not people who are operating in good faith," said Stubbs. "This is not an impasse. This is a flat out boycott."
Stubbs calls it a boycott because he questions whether the HBPA has always had aims to work with an operator other than Idaho Entertainment. He points to a Boise Weekly article from June in which a member of the HBPA spoke about the Greene Group, a Coeur d'Alene-based racetrack operator, as the best solution for horsemen.
"We made a major error in our research," said Stubbs. "We had no idea we'd be dealing with a boycott from day one."
Tom Dougherty, the HBPA member who made the comment about the Greene Group in the June Boise Weekly, is adamant that there is no boycott at play.
"Idaho Entertainment's assessment of that comment is completely false," said Dougherty. "I was commenting on if the Greene Group was being awarded the lease, but they did not get awarded the lease, and there is no ulterior motive going on here."
Elison said he is willing to wait, too, especially since he can race his horses in places like Prescott, Ariz., for more money than he would make under an Idaho Entertainment contract.
As far as the contract is concerned, Elison says a major sticking point is how the purse money gets divided between the Idaho HBPA and Idaho Entertainment. Essentially, out of every dollar bet, 80 cents goes back to winning bettors. The remaining 20 cents, called the take out, gets split between the horsemen and the operator. According to Elison, the specific percentages of the take out have been settled, but in the last contract put forth by Idaho Entertainment, there was a caveat no horseman could live with--the take out would be on net revenue as opposed to gross revenue. This means that the horsemen's share of the purse would be doled out to them minus a variety of Idaho Entertainment operating expenses.
"It's like writing them a blank check," Elison said, adding that across the country, horsemen can earn bottom purses of $2,300 to $2,400. But under an Idaho Entertainment contract, those purses would drop to about $1,000. "You can't afford to stay in Boise for $1,000 purses," he said.
The two parties also are at odds over the number of live racing days that would be held at Idaho Downs, as well as the number of training days the horsemen want--and insist they need--to prepare for live racing.
"The problem is Eric Spector is a businessman. His business is gaming. Our business is horses. He wants all the money and all the control," said Elison.
Stubbs makes no apologies for business acumen, especially in a downturned economy where wagering is lackluster. He points out that Capitol Racing, the former racetrack operator in Boise, lost roughly $1 million in 2008.
Elison estimates that the absence of horse racing in Boise forfeits a positive $40 million economic impact on the Treasure Valley. It's a figure that Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman wishes would bring more urgency to the negotiations. In her Nov. 13 blog post, Ullman offered to help mediate between the horsemen and the operator, but so far no one has taken her up on the offer, she said.
Ullman is critical of the state law, which she said requires the racetrack operator to negotiate a contract specifically with the Idaho HBPA and no other equine organization. She also expressed concern over the state requirement that there be 46 days of live racing at Idaho racetracks.
"To me, that's a problem. That's too much government regulation. These are business owners who need to operate their business," Ullman said. "Maybe it's time to look at the current code because I don't know if horse racing in Idaho can work the way things stand now."