As he approaches his third anniversary as general manager of Rosecroft Raceway, Thomas Chuckas Jr. surveys the racing landscape and declares: "I believe this is the time for the revival of horse racing in the state of Maryland.
"I think the morale in the industry is much more positive than it's been in a long time. I believe it's the dawning of a new era."
The harness track in Prince George's County reopens Friday after a four-week holiday hiatus. It ended its 1999 live-racing season Dec. 18 with a 10 percent increase in attendance compared with the previous year and a 1 percent increase in handle. But that is not why Chuckas is so optimistic.
"Revenue sharing is a major piece of that," Chuckas says. "It has allowed the standardbred industry and the thoroughbred industry to put past differences aside and begin working to develop and grow the entire industry so that everyone benefits."
Signed just before the new year by representatives of six groups -- horsemen, breeders and management of Rosecroft Raceway and the Maryland Jockey Club -- the innovative agreement divides betting revenue 80 percent to the thoroughbred side and 20 percent to the standardbred side. That's about how the betting breaks down, anyway, but the deal encourages the two sides, often at odds in the past, to work together to increase handle.
Chuckas says he believes growth will occur for three reasons. One, he says management at his track, as well as Pimlico and Laurel Park, has rededicated itself to serving the bettors, whom Chuckas calls "guests." Rosecroft offers promotions nearly every weekend and continuing track renovations. The Maryland Jockey Club has unveiled major improvements at Laurel Park.
Two, Chuckas says, the tracks will work together to market the sport. And three, they will upgrade the state's off-track betting network. The first evidence of that is the million-dollar planned transformation of Poor Jimmy's in Cecil County into the Northeast Racing and Sports Club.
All this, Chuckas says, is "very positive for the industry, and very positive for the guests."
`Encouraging' drug tests
A sweep by Maryland Racing Commission inspectors last month at Laurel Park turned up three drug positives from 40 backstretch employees tested. By contrast, a similar sweep last fall at Pimlico resulted in 30 positives for illegal drugs among 74 stable workers who were tested.
John Franzone, chairman of the racing commission, calls the Laurel results "very encouraging." Also, Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, has written a letter to all trainers encouraging participation in a drug-free workplace program. Hoffberger says the response has been "very, very positive."
Scotty Schulhofer, the 73-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, is recovering nicely at his Florida home from triple-bypass surgery, says his close friend, Laddie Dance.
Schulhofer underwent surgery Dec. 27 in Miami. He trains Lemon Drop Kid, Postponed and nine other horses for Dance and his wife, Jinny Vance, who own Taylor's Purchase Farm in Baltimore County. Schulhofer's son, Randy, his assistant, has handled the horses in his absence.
Dance says the 4-year-old Lemon Drop Kid, winner of last year's Belmont and Travers Stakes, and Postponed, a promising 3-year-old, should start their 2000 seasons at Gulfstream Park with very different goals -- Lemon Drop Kid the Pimlico Special, Postponed the Kentucky Derby.
Making the grade
When local turf writers consider casting their votes for Maryland-bred Horse of the Year, they will discover only one Grade I winner among the candidates: Hookedonthefeelin. Now 4, the Citidancer-Prospective Joy filly won the La Brea Stakes Dec. 27 at Santa Anita Park.
Owned by Mike Pegram and trained by Bob Baffert, Hooked- onthefeelin is one of 12 Maryland-bred winners of graded stakes in 1999. Among the others, Stellar Brush and Best of Luck will likely receive the most support for Maryland-bred Horse of the Year.
Around the tracks
Racing officials of tracks from Virginia to New York have begun planning the MATCH series (Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships) for 2000. The two Pennsylvania tracks, Penn National and Philadelphia Park, have dropped out, leaving seven of MATCH's 35 races without homes. What a coup for MATCH if some of those races land at Saratoga and Belmont Park.
Colonial Downs ownerJeffrey P. Jacobs is soliciting offers for the southern Virginia track and its four OTBs. The Maryland Jockey Club, which manages the Virginia operation, requested a copy of the bid package. As part of its management contract, the MJC has the right of first refusal if the track changes hands.