Tote board complaints add up


Horse Racing

April 21, 2002

The Maryland Racing Commission has added one line to the agenda of its monthly meeting Wednesday at Pimlico. That line is "tote board."

And that may result in another heated exchange at a racing commission meeting. Such exchanges have become the norm as Maryland racing continues to grasp futilely for unity and common strategies.

This time, the controversy swirls around the Maryland Jockey Club's decision to shut down the tote board at Pimlico and replace it with a 26-by-32-foot video screen. Patrons have complained that the screen doesn't display betting information adequately and that it is difficult to see, especially in late-afternoon sunlight.

Lou Ulman, chairman of the commission, requested that the issue be added to the agenda.

"We've had a lot of complaints from patrons," Ulman said. "I think patrons have the right to have a tote board where they can see the odds."

Ulman and fellow commissioner John Franzone, both of whom own racehorses and frequent the track, have been inundated with complaints from irate bettors about the tote-board situation.

"I haven't heard a positive thing about it," Franzone said. "The feeling seems to be that the screen should have been an addition to the tote board, not a replacement for it."

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said that track officials continue learning about and adjusting the big screen. In response to patron complaints, he said, the track added an 8-by-24-foot board that displays primarily odds and payoffs.

"We're not ourselves really satisfied with the board," Raffetto said. "That's why we continue to work with it."

Raffetto said that the smaller board was a short-term fix. The long-term fix might be rebuilding a tote board, he said.

Mike Hopkins, acting executive director of the racing commission, sent a letter to the Maryland Jockey Club telling it not to remove its tote systems at Pimlico, where two-thirds of the old tote board remains, and at Laurel Park, where the original tote board remains intact.

Asked whether the commission had the power to order the tracks to keep tote boards, Ulman said: "We have the right to require that improvements be made to the facilities. So I believe that we do."

True purse supplement

That $4.5 million purse supplement for racing has apparently shrunk to $3 million, said Hopkins, manager of the racing commission.

A last-minute bill introduced in the General Assembly by Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell created the supplement. The estimates of $4.5 million coming back to racing -- 70 percent to thoroughbred, 30 percent to harness -- came from racing leaders' speculation of what they believed the bill said.

When they actually read the law, Hopkins said, they discovered that it was written in such a way as to provide only about $3 million for purses.

The law says that money raised from the increased takeout at Pimlico and Laurel Park from fiscal years 2001 and 2002 (the state's fiscal year begins July 1) will be returned to the industry for purses. That will amount to about $3 million dispensed from July 1 this year to June 30 next year, Hopkins said.

However, the money raised from takeout from July 1, 2000, to June 30, 2001, was excluded from the purse supplement, Hopkins said. That amounts to about $1.6 million.

Hopkins said that no one can figure out why that money was excluded. Perhaps it was an oversight, he said.

"You know how things happen in the General Assembly at the end -- fast and furious," Hopkins said.

He said that the tracks could claim that $1.6 million for such things as capital improvements and marketing if they submitted a plan that was approved by the governor. As for the decreased purse supplement, the MJC's Raffetto said he was disappointed.

"I thought we could loosen our belt buckle a little bit," he said. "Instead, we'll have to stay on a diet. Our problem is that we need to grow our business, not go sideways. At this point, we're going sideways."

Nevertheless, he said, the MJC would restore its graded stakes later this year -- the ones cut last year -- and ensure that the Pimlico Special will return in 2003.

Around the tracks

Although the Maryland Horse Breeders Association honored its Maryland-breds of 2001 at Wednesday's awards dinner, the one standing ovation was reserved for Marguerite "Marge" Finney Dance. She retired Dec. 31 after 34 years' working for the breeders' association in many capacities, but especially as a copy editor of its magazine, formerly The Maryland Horse, now Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.

"She was the absolute best copy editor you ever saw in your life," said Snowden Carter, a former editor of the magazine. "She knew everything. If there was a hall of fame for copy editors, Marge Dance would be my nominee."

One of four TV ads created by Ole Man Potter Productions for the Maryland Jockey Club and the Leffler Agency was named a 2001 winner in the national Vision Awards. The ad, featuring a Jack Russell terrier jumping into a bath tub, was judged best of show in the humor category.

The Virginia Racing Commission approved a request from Colonial Downs that involves raising the purse of the Virginia Derby from $200,000 to $500,000. The request included spending $100,000 to hire a "national caliber entertainer" to perform July 13 at Colonial Downs on Virginia Derby day.

Pimlico has added a 13th race to its Preakness day schedule. Eight of the races May 18 will be stakes.

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