Blizzard causes $1 million in losses, De Francis says


January 14, 1996|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The Blizzard of '96 couldn't have been timed more poorly for Maryland racing.

It arrived on the heels of the slot-machine onslaught in Delaware last month, forcing Laurel Park to shut down live racing just when the revenues were desperately needed.

"This has been devastating for business," Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis said after the track lost four live cards and a simulcasting day last week.

"In the period from Sunday through Friday, we lost $5 million to $6 million of live handle in Maryland and probably $3 1/2 million of commingled in revenue. And it has come at the worst possible time."

Because of the enormous snow-removal costs for equipment and personnel, De Francis estimates the weather has cost the track a net of $1 million.

Racing probably could have been resumed Thursday because the track was ready and the parking lots cleared, but since the horsemen were not able to get in Tuesday to draw entries, there was no card.

Two years ago, when ice storms continuously ravaged the area, Laurel also took a beating in lost days. But this winter is fast approaching the setbacks of '94, with 2 1/2 months of potentially bad weather looming.

De Francis got his wish when Friday's storm deposited relatively little more snow, and the track staged live racing yesterday for the first time in a week.

Saturday is the track's biggest day, with an average handle of more than $3 million.

But he had been "very concerned about this one coming because of the ice factor. Another extended closure would be tough to take."

Ice dirty word to Passero

Mention the I-word to track superintendent John Passero and he simply winces.

"Snow comes off and the track can open," said Passero. "But when you get ice and the surface freezes, you've got big problems."

Training was suspended at Laurel from last Sunday through Wednesday because the track was under 2 feet of snow, but Passero opened it Thursday for an abnormally long six hours.

"There is no sense trying to move that much snow until it ends," he said. "We had a second storm coming with 5 or 6 more inches, so we never touched it until that one ended."

With graders and snow blowers, the job was finished by Wednesday night. Then came Friday's newest belt.

Neither Pimlico nor Bowie has been open for training because Passero and his crew have been unable to attend to those tracks.

"This is the worst situation I've seen with snow since I've been here," he said. "We had some tougher ones in Canada, but this is pretty unusual for December and January here."

But freeing the track left it without the blanket of snow that could actually protect it from icing over, and a possible freeze was the problem facing Passero and his crew this weekend.

Mooney sees both sides

As the former general manager at Delaware Park, Laurel executive John Mooney has an unusual perspective about the intense competition Maryland is facing from the slot revenues being produced in its neighboring state.

"I was involved in writing the original bill for that [slots]," said Mooney. "The present bill is not as lucrative for the track as the one first proposed, but is more favorable to the horsemen."

Mooney joins the chorus that believes Delaware purses "eventually are going to double. And, as they increase, so will attendance and the pressure on owners to compete there."

The slots also have increased wagering on simulcasts at Delaware Park, money that is put in reserve for purse increases.

In addition, the slots have had a public-relations effect, focusing major attention on Delaware. The state received another break when Philadelphia Park -- crippled by a strike -- shut down just when the casino gambling got under way.

"Naturally, there are a lot of sightseers now," said Mooney. "So, there's no telling how far this will go. No doubt it will level off at some point."

But it is safe to assume Delaware purses will rival -- and perhaps surpass -- Maryland's next spring and summer. Some action will be necessary.

"As a countermeasure, Maryland tracks are going to have to find other ways to help fund purses if they're going to stay competitive," said Mooney.

"They expect to have more [slot] machines, so the potential for more is there. We're going to have to do something."

Jockeys visit children

Jockeys were among 11 representatives of Laurel Park who visited the pediatric ward of the University of Maryland hospital during the holidays.

The riders wore their silks, brought various racing gear (whips, helmets and a saddle) and presented gift bags filled with racing-related items during their time with 15 children from 6 months to 18 years old.

The jocks participating were Steve Hamilton, Allen Stacy, Dean Purdom, Donnie Miller, Charles Forrest and Jesus Bracho.

Racing info

The Baltimore Sun is offering expanded horse racing results and entries through Sundial, our telephone information service, and by fax. All services are free.

To get racing information, call (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. After you hear the greeting, using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code that corresponds to the racetrack you want:

* Aqueduct: 5042

* Fairgrounds: 5044

* Freehold: 5033

* Garden State: 5043

* Gulfstream: 5040

* Laurel: 5038

* Penn National: 5030

* Phila. Park: 5035* Santa Anita: 5036

* Suburban: 5046

* Suffolk: 5039

* Turfway: 5045

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