Summer racing hiatus rejected

6-2 vote goes against plan to free horses for Colonial Downs meet

March 29, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

In a tense meeting that exposed deep divisions within the state's racing community, the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday rejected a plan for ceasing thoroughbred racing here for five weeks this summer so that horses can compete in Virginia.

The commission voted 6-2 against the proposal advanced by the Maryland Jockey Club and a task force representing segments of the racing industry in Maryland and Virginia. The plan called for Pimlico and Laurel Park to close for racing from June 10 to July 14 while Colonial Downs, the struggling track near Richmond, conducted a 25-day summer thoroughbred meet.

A majority of the commissioners (John McDaniel and Vincent Palumbo dissented) agreed with leaders of the Maryland horsemen's group that Colonial Downs should race in the fall, as it has the past three years. They said it was not in the best interest of Maryland racing for tracks here to close during the summer.

After the vote, the commission took up another contentious issue, whether to authorize a track in Western Maryland. It is scheduled to continue to hear testimony today and tomorrow.

Next week, the commissioners will have to grapple with the fact there is no plan in place on where to race after the current Pimlico meet closes June 9. The racing commissions of Maryland and Virginia are likely to discuss the issue by conference call, said John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland commission.

They will try to settle on non-conflicting schedules for the tracks linked by common management. The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel, also manages the thoroughbred meet at Colonial Downs.

Representatives of the Maryland-Virginia task force, in concert with the Virginia Racing Commission, are adamant that racing in Virginia should be held in the summer. Leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and a majority of the Maryland commissioners are equally adamant that it be in September.

"I wish there was a compromise," said Wayne Wright, executive director of the MTHA, an association of trainers and owners. "Unfortunately, we haven't found one yet."

Acrimony marked the meeting at the Timonium fairgrounds as long-standing frustrations and mistrust simmered.

The relationship between leaders of the MTHA and the Maryland Jockey Club has become so poisoned by suspicion that agreement on any issue appears nearly impossible. After the meeting Wright and Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, engaged in a heated discussion.

Some members of the racing commission have become frustrated with owners of Pimlico and Laurel. Those commissioners have said they are fed up with what they see as frequent foot-dragging by officials of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Answering a commissioner's pointed question about why this racing plan was being presented so late, De Francis said that he had hoped to negotiate a settlement with horsemen and avoid "this kind of acrimonious debate."

Franzone, the commission chairman, cut him off.

"As usual," Franzone said, his tone sharp with sarcasm, "that went down in flames."

Even the horsemen could not present a united front. Although the MTHA's board of directors voted to oppose summer racing in Virginia, some trainers told commissioners they prefer it.

"They don't speak for all of us," trainer Carlos Garcia said of the MTHA board. "They speak for just a small group."

Donald Barr, a trainer who serves on the board, testified passionately in favor of the MJC and task-force plan. He served on the task force, believing that he was representing the MTHA. Wright and Alan Foreman, the horsemen's lawyer, said Barr was not authorized to represent the MTHA.

After the meeting an angry Barr approached Franzone. "John," he said to the chairman, "the truth just doesn't count anymore."

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