Rancor in racing reaches new level

Even commissioners drawn into clashes at `peace' meeting

Horse Racing

January 24, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

As tensions soared and divisions grew ever deeper, the Maryland Racing Commission deferred action yesterday on two crucial issues after representatives of the Maryland horsemen's organization and Maryland Jockey Club clashed, often heatedly, on nearly every point.

"You guys can't agree on anything," said an exasperated Terry Saxon, a member of the commission. "It's amazing."

The monthly commission meetings have become public stages on which the disparate factions of the state's racing industry display their differences and mistrust of one another. But yesterday, for the first time publicly, a fracture appeared on the commission.

After listening to fellow commissioner John Fran- zone repeatedly side with the horsemen against the management of Pimlico and Laurel Park, mild-mannered commissioner John P. Mc- Daniel finally cut off Fran- zone and said pointedly, "Go sit down next to Mr. Wright if you're going to argue that way."

Mr. Wright was Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

All in all, it was an outlandish performance by leaders of a struggling industry looking to lawmakers in Annapolis for financial assistance. Lawmakers have said they need to see one quality within the racing industry before they'll consider helping: unity.

The tone for yesterday's meeting at the Timonium fairgrounds was set early by Marty Jacobs, general counsel of the Maryland Jockey Club.

During a discussion of racing dates for the rest of 2002, Jacobs told commissioners that state law prohibited them from telling the MJC where to race through June 30 because they had already approved a general plan for 2002 racing at their November meeting.

Jacobs read the law (which no one else seemed familiar with) and gave each commissioner a copy of it. Commissioners began to bristle, and so did members of the audience.

Jacobs had struck a raw nerve - with commissioners who didn't like him telling them what they couldn't do, and with critics of the MJC who've said for years that the trouble with Maryland racing is that lawyers run its major tracks.

From that point on, it was gloves off. Disagreements became heated, even during the break and upon adjournment, and not one major issue was resolved.

The two issues in need of resolution were when to cease racing in Maryland so that thoroughbreds could run at Colonial Downs, MJC's sister track in Virginia, and how to make additional cuts in the stakes program, necessitated by loss of the $10 million purse supplement from the state.

The MJC wants to run in Virginia in June and July. The horsemen want to run there in July and August. Neither side would give in. The commissioners wouldn't even let representatives from Virginia speak.

The MJC proposed cutting about $1 million from spring stakes races at Pimlico. That would raise to about $3.3 million the amount cut from stakes since loss of the purse supplement last summer.

The horsemen want even more cuts in stakes so that purses for non-stakes, the "bread-and-butter" races, can be sustained. The horsemen want the Pimlico Special eliminated for one year. It is one of Maryland's cherished races, one of its three Grade I stakes. Its purse last year was $750,000. The MJC proposed cutting it to $600,000 this year.

The race, at any price, is a "luxury we can't afford this year," Wright said. "It's unfortunate. It's uncomfortable. It's distasteful. ... The money's just not there."

Finally, after futile discussions, the commissioners deferred action on racing dates and stakes cuts. They implored the horsemen and track management to try one more time to resolve the issues in private before the commission's February meeting.

The meeting roared toward conclusion with a near-shouting match between the MJC's Jacobs and the commission's Franzone about cleanliness at Laurel, especially about a dead bird Franzone said has been lying in the same corner of the clubhouse for two months.

Lou Ulman, chairman of the commission, chimed in that the scaffolding surrounding the recentlycracked windows in the Laurel grandstand looks "horrible." He said: "I get nothing but complaints when I'm out there."

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