Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis established a tone of cooperation early and thus addressed a mostly receptive audience last night at the regular meeting of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association in Laurel.
De Francis stressed the need for working together on key issues facing the tracks and the horsemen, whose major topic of disagreement did not involve track management.
It concerned an offer from an independent organization to audit the tracks' finances exclusively for the horsemen, who currently rely on a Maryland Racing Commission audit for that information. The issue was tabled after considerable discussion.
De Francis addressed three key points:
* The impending threat of casino gambling in Maryland and Virginia.
"This is without question the single most important issue facing our industry," he said. "This is a question of survival. The casino companies have more money than I've ever seen.
"I'm making a prediction of only a 50-50 chance that Arlington Park will operate next year because of riverboats in Chicago and Illinois. Unless we coordinate our efforts and counter the money by raising the ante, they'll run over us like a steamroller."
Josh Pons of Bel Air's Country Life Farm has been investigating the issue for the MTHA and has come to the same conclusion.
"There is no more threat to us than casinos," he said. "We need time to study this thoroughly and must stall it in the legislature."
Information on the issue has been forwarded to the state's gubernatorial candidates by the horsemen.
* The conversion to summer racing in Virginia.
De Francis plans to have a pre-Christmas series of dinners with the 2,400 horsemen in a five-state area who compete at Maryland tracks to explain the situation.
The biggest objection is the travel to New Kent County, south of Richmond, but De Francis said there was no choice once Virginia issued a license.
"We've heard a lot of talk about keeping things the way they are," he said. "But the status quo is no longer an option. We had two choices -- either divide the market in half or work with them.
"In the Delaware Valley, Garden State and Philadelphia Park divided the market and split the horses. They were big-league 10 to 12 years ago; now they are minor-league."
* The balancing of the purse account with the horsemen.
He said the track is trying to make up the deficits from a four-month period at the beginning of 1993 when revenue fell 20 percent.
He added that once that shortfall is taken care of, purses will rise again.