Pimlico would lose fall meet under Va. plan

January 04, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

Once again, as far as major sports are concerned, Baltimore is taking it on the chin.

Under a Maryland-Virginia interstate business plan unveiled yesterday by Maryland Jockey Club chairman Joe De Francis, live racing at Pimlico Race Course would be cut by a third if De Francis builds a proposed track in Loudoun County, Va.

The plan, which wipes out Pimlico's fall meet and beefs up the number of racing days in Virginia by skimming them from the Baltimore track, is part of the amended application that De Francis submitted yesterday in Richmond to the Virginia Racing Commission.

Last year, Pimlico operated 93 days of live racing and is scheduled for roughly the same amount of live dates in 1994.

But if a Virginia track operated by Laurel/Pimlico joins the Maryland circuit in 1996, Pimlico's live racing would be cut to 60 days annually, or essentially to just a two-month period to showcase the Preakness and Pimlico Special.

Baltimore, considered a major racing town, would have just two months of live racing a year.

During the other 10 months, Pimlico would be vacant except to operate as an off-track betting outlet and as a training center.

Most affected will be Baltimore, Harford and Cecil County

horsemen, who will have to ship to either Laurel or Loudoun for most of the year.

The new Loudoun track, which will be located three miles northwest of Dulles Airport, would run for 102 days, from mid-June to mid-October. It will be roughly a two-hour commute from Pimlico and considerably longer for horses shipping from the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton.

There would be less impact on Laurel's live season. Laurel now operates 155 days of live racing. That schedule would be cut to 115 days, operating from mid-October until mid-March.

When De Francis originally submitted his Virginia application Oct. 1, the plan called for 90 days of live thoroughbred racing in Virginia.

"This is stretching what we had originally talked about doing," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "But I haven't seen the numbers or the [purse] projections yet. There are a couple of key points. Number one is how much a Maryland-Virginia circuit will increase purses and number two, it's possible these dates are not yet cast in stone."

De Francis said yesterday that based on projections made by the firm Coopers and Lybrand, the average purse distribution will almost double from about $135,000 daily to $235,000.

"If you look at the history of Pimlico," he said, "you'll see that before 1985, all Pimlico raced was 60 days a year. So for 243 years of its history, Pimlico did just fine with two months of live racing. The basic business of Pimlico is the spring meet, that's the glory meet of Maryland racing. What we're talking about is eliminating the fall meet, run at the slowest time of year. I don't see Baltimore is being short-shrifted at all. And I might add, the Baltimore fan is also served by Laurel."

"These are the alternatives: Do you race at Pimlico for 60 days a year with an average purse structure of $235,000 a day or 90 days a year with a $140,000 purse structure. The answer, I think, is obvious. Instead of having ho-hum racing switching back and forth from Laurel and Pimlico like a Ping-Pong ball all year, you introduce Virginia and then Pimlico in the spring will become one of the premier race meets in the country, like Saratoga or Churchill Downs at Derby time."

Horsemen have been supportive of the Virginia plan under the guise of a limited number of live racing dates being shifted from Maryland to Virginia. Although Pimlico and Laurel would be cut a total of 73 days, 29 more days are being added to the racing calendar because in the summer Virginia would be running a live six-day meet instead of the five-day weeks run in Maryland.

Not everyone is ready to support the plan, however. John McDaniel, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said yesterday that "this is something the board is going to be looking at carefully. We have to make sure there is balance between all geographic areas."

Former commission chairman John H. "Jack" Mosner Jr., who is still on the board, said that he has "very high doubts" about the whole Virginia project.

"I look at the history of new tracks that have been built [in Alabama and Minnesota, where the Birmingham Turf Club and Canterbury Downs went bankrupt] and I wonder about the financial aspects. It seems that going into Virginia is nothing but sheer speculation," Mosner said. "I'm concerned about the financial picture, both at the existing tracks in Maryland and the one proposed for Virginia."

Don Price, executive director of the Virginia Racing Commission, said all six applicants bidding for the track turned in amendments yesterday.

Among the major ones were:

* Churchill Downs down-scaled its proposed track in Virginia Beach by $7 to $8 million.

* The Virginia Racing Associates, a harness group that plans to build a track in Portsmouth, has lined up a number of Virginia investors willing to collectively invest $13.5 million in its track.

* The Maryland Jockey Club, which shifted sites from New Kent County to Loudoun County.

Price said the Virginia commission will visit all the proposed sites in February. No date has been set for hearings concerning all the applications.

"We're aiming to make a decision [on who will be awarded the license] by June," Price said.

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