Jockey Club, horsemen end feuding, agree on schedule

Loss of Pimlico Special for year major casualty

Horse Racing

February 28, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Finally, peace reigned.

After months of public bickering, the Maryland Jockey Club and the state's thoroughbred horsemen agreed yesterday on a racing schedule through June 2006 and a stakes schedule through March 2004.

The agreement on stakes races eliminates the prestigious Pimlico Special for this year only. Its $600,000 purse will be distributed among non-stakes races for the benefit of Maryland trainers and horse owners who race here day-in and day-out.

"We are bitterly disappointed to cut the Pimlico Special this year," said Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. "That was the price of peace. Peace and cooperation [with the horsemen] were more important than this one single race."

Run in May the week before the Preakness, the Pimlico Special is one of only three Grade I stakes that traditionally focus national attention on Maryland racing. The others are the Preakness and Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash.

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents trainers and horse owners, insisted on suspending the Pimlico Special as the final major cut necessitated by the loss of the $6.2 million state grant to thoroughbred purses.

Alan Foreman, lawyer for the horsemen's group, said that the "unusual economic circumstances" of losing the purse supplement gave horsemen no alternative but to fight for the one-year hiatus of the Pimlico Special.

"Not the horsemen or the racetracks wanted to do that," Foreman said.

Foreman and De Francis sat side by side as they unveiled their last-minute agreement to the racing commissioners who were assembled in the Ruffian Room at Laurel Park.

"This marks the beginning of what we hope is a new era of cooperation between the two organizations ... to move Maryland racing forward," De Francis said.

Added Foreman: "We're both trying to do what's best for Maryland racing, although we may disagree on how to get there."

The two sides met in recent days to try to iron out an agreement to present to the commission. Details weren't finalized until yesterday morning.

In fact, when Lou Ulman, chairman of the commission, reached that point in the agenda and called the sides forward, they were nowhere to be found. They were still meeting outside the room in private. Ulman skipped ahead to the next item.

When Foreman and De Francis finally appeared, they presented a plan that guarantees 220 days of live racing per year through 2005. At least 25 of those days will be between June 1 and Aug. 31.

The horsemen had wanted that provision to preserve some summer racing in Maryland.

In return, the horsemen agreed to let the Maryland Jockey Club cease live racing whenever it wanted to so that Colonial Downs could hold its thoroughbred meet in Virginia. The MJC manages racing at the track near Richmond.

This year, Colonial Downs will race 26 days between June 21 and July 23 and award $200,000 a day in purses. Maryland horsemen traditionally claim about 80 percent of that money.

The racing commission voted 7-0 to approve the racing schedule and 5-2 to approve the stakes schedule. Commissioners Erwin Mendelson and Ellen Moyer vehemently objected to cutting the Pimlico Special, even for a single year.

Mendelson said that the move further erodes Maryland's image nationally. Moyer said that eliminating the glamour events is not the way to attract new people to the sport.

She said that the horsemen and track management, despite agreeing this time, still have no long-term vision for the future of horse racing in Maryland.

Commissioner John P. McDaniel countered: "I would look at this as a call to arms."

He said that perhaps this agreement could lead to an industry-wide consensus on a racing bill in the General Assembly.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has said that he would submit a bill calling for, among other things, a grant for purses of perhaps $3 million to $4 million.

Where that money would come from is unclear, Taylor acknowledged. Lawmakers are struggling to balance the state's budget.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has earmarked $3.7 million for the state's General Fund that was raised from increased takeout on horse betting and uncashed pari-mutuel tickets. That money was supposed to finance the sale of bonds to pay for massive track improvements.

The sale of those bonds never took place. Yesterday, the racing commission agreed to support a bill that would repeal the bond fund and designate that money for purses (an estimated $5 million by June 30). But that's the same money Glendening wants.

Also, it's not clear how long yesterday's peace will last.

John P. Davey, a lawyer representing Rosecroft Raceway - the Prince George's County harness track - objected strongly to aspects of the commission-backed bill dealing with simulcasting issues.

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