Pimlico Race Course opens a 20-day fall meet today amid an odd mixture of optimism from track management and despair among some horsemen.
Although the excitement of the Preakness is missing during this abbreviated autumn venue, fans will be able to bet on the Maryland Million (Sept. 26) and a new National Pic-6 (Sept. 12, Sept. 26 and Oct. 4).
Kent Desormeaux, Maryland's leading jockey for three years, will return from California for a nine-day riding stint starting Sept. 24.
Track operator Joe De Francis is enthusiastic that Pimlico will be simulcasting it's entire card and commingling its betting pool with nine tracks nationwide. "We started with two tracks [at Laurel] this summer and have now jumped up to nine," De Francis said. "Over a year's time this should allow us to increase purses by about $1 million."
De Francis is adamant, however, that the Pimlico stable area will close on Nov. 1 for about 4 1/2 months after racing is shifted to Laurel.
He said yesterday he is flatly rejecting a proposal made last week by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. The group agreed to authorize an intertrack wagering deal with Rosecroft Raceway if De Francis keeps Pimlico open.
"I am not making any trade-off on the condition we do a deal that should have been done three months ago," De Francis said. "I have tried to reiterate that closing down Pimlico during the off-season is not a first step in the diminution of this track. It is a cost-saving measure that has to be made during hard economic times. We have tried and asked horsemen how we can minimize this burden. But, instead, all I get is people calling me names and throwing their arms up in the air in despair."
Horsemen stabled at Pimlico year-round reacted to De Francis' announcement that he was closing the track by boycotting entries at Laurel on Aug. 21 and 22. Subsequently, De Francis met with the horsemen to try to find ways to solve the problem.
Proposals to raise the $400,000 to keep the stable area open by charging stall rents and vanning fees was turned down by the MTHA. Instead the organization's board decided to wield some bargaining power, but apparently to no avail.
"Horsemen here feel a lot of resentment," said Timothy Boyce, an MTHA director who has tried to mediate a solution between management and horsemen. "We have come to the table with three different ideas to keep the track open. But their attitude is, 'Pimlico is closing. How best can we do it?'
"Stall applications for the Laurel meet are due this Sunday (Sept. 13). The stall assignments are expected to be made by Sept. 15 or within a reasonable amount of time from that date. We will see who gets what [stalls] and where. Maybe they might be able to fit everyone in [at Laurel and the Bowie Training Center]. But from the numbers we've heard, that's not expected."
Boyce said he had done a survey that indicated about 40 trainers and 240 horses would leave the state if Pimlico shuts down.
"The bottom line counts to a certain extent, but if they are going to disenfranchise this many horsemen, is it going to be worth the $400,000 they are going to save? We go to the legislature and get an Off-Track betting bill passed and we are called partners," Boyce said. "But if they want to cut costs, all of a sudden we are not partners. They don't want us telling them how to run their business."
Boyce said the horsemen will decide their next step after the stall allotments are released. "This is something the horsemen at Pimlico feel very strongly about," he said.