Racing set for July shutdown

Md. venues dark for Va. track's meet

Horse Racing

April 26, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

After months of rancor that possibly cost them $10 million, the divergent segments of the state's racing industry agreed yesterday to a summer schedule that includes a shutdown while Virginia's Colonial Downs runs.

Under the plan approved by the Maryland Racing Commission, thoroughbreds will cease racing in the state from July 8 to Aug. 7. During that period, Colonial Downs, which is managed by the Maryland Jockey Club, will run its 25-day meet.

The schedule is a compromise between the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents horse trainers and owners, and the operators of Pimlico and Laurel Park. The sides had clashed so bitterly over Virginia and other issues that legislators in Annapolis criticized the industry for its divisiveness.

Vincent D. Palumbo, a member of the racing commission, told racing leaders that the legislators' decision earlier this month not to grant $10 million in purse subsidies was "a message to your industry to stop a lot of this petty stuff."

The loss of that purse money made agreement on racing schedules imperative. Industry leaders must decide how to cope with the resulting 15 percent drop in purse money for the fiscal year beginning July 1 - as purses at tracks in surrounding states continue to rise because of slot machines or government grants.

But first, Maryland's leaders had to agree on racing dates. They fought openly about them at last month's racing commission meeting after the Maryland Jockey Club proposed a June-July closure for Virginia. Leaders of the horsemen's group rejected an early summer shutdown even as some of its members embraced it and criticized their own leadership.

A series of closed-door meetings and phone calls in recent days produced yesterday's agreement. Everyone's back was against the wall. It was late April, and schedules for June were nonexistent.

"This isn't the ideal solution," said Alan Foreman, lawyer for the horsemen. "It's a compromise. Everyone had to give a little."

Thoroughbreds will continue to race at Pimlico through July 7. Colonial Downs will operate from July 4 to Aug. 7. It will overlap with Pimlico two days - July 4 and July 7.

Laurel Park will open Aug. 8 and run until Timonium begins Aug. 25. What happens after Timonium's 10-day fair meet remains up in the air.

Horsemen and Pimlico-Laurel management have begun discussing how to deal with the purse cuts. Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said one certainty is "a good solid cut of the stakes program. We've been running way too many stakes anyway."

Some stakes will be reduced in value and some will be eliminated, Raffetto said.

Also, horsemen and track management must decide on a fall and winter schedule, a purse structure and a possible reduction in races. They promised commissioners they would present a plan at next month's commission meeting.

Representatives of the Virginia racing community expressed relief at finally being able to plan and promote their monthlong meet. They had hoped to race in June and July, not July and August.

"It's fair to say this isn't the ideal time for us," said Anne Poulson, a Virginian who heads a task force of racing leaders from the two states. "But we needed to get some date certainty. We didn't have anymore time to fight amongst ourselves."

She said Virginians had hoped to open June 9 and receive the benefit of simulcast betting on that day's Belmont Stakes. And she said Virginians had preferred racing earlier in the summer when it was cooler.

"But I do believe this is a good compromise," Poulson said, "and we will make the best of it."

This will be Colonial Downs' fifth season. It operated the first four in the fall with minimal success.

Virginia's racing establishment wanted to try summer dates this year in hopes of drawing tourists and avoiding the competition of numerous fall events. Colonial Downs is about 20 miles east of Colonial Williamsburg.

The Virginia Racing Commission has scheduled an emergency meeting at 9 a.m. Monday to consider the July 4-Aug. 7 dates for Colonial Downs. Poulson said she expects commissioners to approve the dates.

Although the Maryland Jockey Club does not own Colonial Downs, it manages the thoroughbred meet and provides many workers. Maryland horsemen supply about 75 percent of the horses that race at the colonial-style track.

Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the MJC, urged Maryland's racing commissioners to meet with their Virginia counterparts this fall to help devise a racing schedule for 2002 - in an effort to avoid "the internal disarray and disharmony" that marred the process this year.

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