Owners and trainers expressed anger, but appear in no mood to boycott entries, over the possibility that Pimlico Race Course will be closed to training for about three months this winter.
"I hear a lot of talk about owners getting out of the game or trainers wanting to leave the state, but no one is talking about a boycott," said owner-trainer Judy DiNatale. "I think everyone just feels that this is a done deal."
Two years ago, when Pimlico/Laurel operator Joe De Francis first proposed shutting down Pimlico during the winter, horsemen staged a two-day boycott of entries. The move forced De Francis into starting talks with horsemen and later he agreed to keep one side of the barn area and track open for training.
But now the tracks' poor economic situation -- they lost $7.3 million last year -- and the cost of keeping three barn areas open year-round for training seem to have sunk in.
"I think people are getting more educated and realize racing is like any other business," said owner Bill Fitzgibbons. "You have to do what you have to do in order to stay in business."
But that doesn't mean horsemen are happy about it.
About 60 owners and trainers met yesterday with Laurel/Pimlico's vice president of racing, Lenny Hale, and voiced their concerns about the impending closing.
Hall of Fame trainer Henry Clark wanted to know where the approximately 130 people who reside in the rooms above the stables at Pimlico will live this winter.
"There should be room for them at Laurel or Bowie when some outfits leave to go to Florida," Hale replied.
Owner Ted Mudge said that he will turn out five of his six horses for the winter and that the tracks, which experience small fields, particularly in the winter, are going to lose more horses.
"In addition to that, Delaware Park is also closing," Mudge said. "That means that the majority of the horsemen in Maryland, who live in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, won't have a convenient place to stable their horses or even a track to ship in and train over."
Hale said that it costs Pimlico/Laurel about $400,000 to keep the Pimlico stable area and track open for training during the winter.
John Mooney Jr., the tracks' general manager, told the horsemen that the 332 thoroughbreds stabled at Pimlico last winter could have fit comfortably into Laurel and the Bowie Training Center.
He said that the horse population decreased from 1,800 in November to 1,500 in January, and that Laurel-Bowie combined can hold about 1,900 horses.
But squeezing the Pimlico horses into Laurel/Bowie will not only inconvenience horsemen and their help from Baltimore, but also trainers at the other two tracks, who will also have to move their outfits.
"In this era when racing is in such a precarious situation, it seems you would want to encourage owners and trainers to stay in the game and keep them happy and not disgusted," DiNatale said.
Added trainer Jon Davison, "It seems like management is cutting off their nose to spite their face. Cutting $400,000 now might be a short-term economic solution, but losing more and more horses creates a long-term problem."
Laurel race calendar approved
The Maryland Racing Commission, at its monthly meeting yesterday, approved a calendar for the Laurel Race Course fall and winter meet that closely resembles last year's but includes a return to regular Sunday racing.
The track will be open for 68 days of live racing and simulcasting on Tuesdays and Thursday through Sunday from Sept. 27 to Dec. 31, as well as Monday, Oct. 10, and Monday, Dec. 26. The track will be open for simulcasting only on Wednesday.
Pimlico/Laurel general counsel Martin Jacobs said the simulcasting business was hurt by the lack of Sunday racing last year.
The commission also gave final approval to a new regulation, suggested by horsemen, that requires exercise riders to wear safety vests, as jockeys are currently required to wear. The rule will go into effect in about 45 days.