Md. horsemen calm as Del. purses rise

Trainers cite state subsidy as main reason most will decline large-scale move

April 10, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Despite another significant increase in purse money at Delaware Park, Maryland horsemen are not planning a mass exodus to the nearby track, which launches its lengthy meeting today.

The Stanton, Del., plant is offering $33 million in purses -- up from $27.5 million last spring -- during its 139-day stand, including 48 stakes races worth $4.5 million.

But local trainers generally will pick their spots to run in Delaware, where purses have been pushed ever upward by slots-driven revenue over the last three years.

Only Hamilton Smith, consistently among the top Maryland trainers, is planning to stable a sizable number of horses in Delaware, and that is by necessity.

"I guess I'm going to have to send some there," said Smith, who has 20 stalls reserved at Delaware Park. "I prefer to race here where I live [Laurel], and I was trying to get all my horses in here, but I can't get enough space. I have to go somewhere with them."

King Leatherbury is sending a "small string" to Delaware, but basically will ship horses. "I'm just too involved here," he said, "but if some races don't fill in Maryland because of one or two horses, you have to look elsewhere."

Most observers cite the annual subsidy from the state of Maryland -- $7 million to the thoroughbred industry -- as making the difference, fattening local purses sufficiently to compete with out-of-state races.

"Without the grants from the state, there would be a sizable difference," said Wayne Wright, executive director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"I think the purse supplements and the money to the breeders' fund instill confidence and support in our horsemen. You can always expect some defections, but we expect people to stay home because there is a solid economy here."

The approach to Delaware's increases is basically wait and see.

"It's too early to tell whether there will be an effect," said Alan Foreman, MTHA attorney. "Let's see how the first month goes in Delaware."

Steve Rushing, agent for two-time national riding champion Edgar Prado, said the Maryland subsidy has discouraged a reversal of Prado's schedule -- riding five days in Delaware and two in Maryland instead of vice versa.

"We're going to do the same as the last two years," Rushing said. "Edgar will ride up there when Maryland is dark. If it turns out that there is a huge difference in certain categories of purses, we might reconsider."

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, cited the recent upturn in business at the state tracks as a positive sign. Laurel had a successful meeting and the opening-day handle at Pimlico was up 37 percent.

"We have to hope the economy stays strong," he said. "It's a psychological situation. If the legislature goes ahead and enacts legislation to put the money into racing, the general atmosphere will stay good. But I think this is the year Delaware could start to have more impact."

There are some drawbacks to competing in Delaware. With greater rewards, competition is stiffer because races draw strong horses from New York, New Jersey and even Florida. Delaware Park's racing surface has been a deterrent in recent years, but it has been reconditioned for 1999. And splitting a stable brings additional expenses because trainers have to add help.

"The purses there are definitely more enticing," said trainer Gary Capuano. "But if you can't win the races, it's not worth going."

Capuano's brother, Dale, retreated from stabling at Delaware this year.

"The only way it would really work is if I moved up there," he said. "I came back halfway through the meeting last year. I didn't have as many horses so I didn't go this time."

If purses continue to rise in Delaware, owners may exert more pressure on their conditioners to run for the added money. Leatherbury pointed out that he is entering more horses at Charles Town now simply because certain categories of races have purses equivalent to Maryland's and are easier to win.

Still, there is no sign of panic.

"Maryland's product is good and the public recognizes that," said Wright. "I think the industry as a whole is showing positive signs of performance. As long as the economy is solid and the legislature provides the grant, I think we will have continued optimism."

Delaware's showcase weekend will culminate July 25 with the $500,000 Delaware Handicap.

The season includes six stakes worth a total of $1.35 million, including the new Grade III Delaware Oaks and the new Grade III Kent Breeders' Cup.

Post time daily is 12: 45 p.m.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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