You'd think with Pimlico Race Course's meet closing today and racing's transfer to Laurel Park on Wednesday that everything would be hunky-dory, that everyone would be looking ahead to the Maryland Million instead of cranking their necks around to look back at Pimlico.
On Saturday, the Maryland Million will take place at Laurel. It is the best and most fun day of racing anywhere. I'd like to be looking ahead, too.
Why, then, did I find myself attending the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association board of directors meeting Thursday evening in Laurel? Because the horsemen were meeting with Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, about the contentious issue of the jockey club's closing of the Pimlico stables for the winter.
Not once did I hear uttered "Maryland Million."
Instead, trainers and owners bombarded Raffetto with questions, criticisms and, eventually, a solution for keeping Pimlico open. Whether they were persuasive remains to be seen. Raffetto said he'd have to run their concerns and suggestions by executives at Magna Entertainment Corp., parent company of the MJC.
Much of the discussion wasn't congenial. Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the MTHA, told Raffetto pointedly: "It's wrong what you're doing, Lou. It's wrong. You're hurting a lot of people."
The MJC had announced six days earlier that it would close Pimlico from Nov. 29 to March 1 and allocate stalls at Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center based on "performance at the Maryland racetracks." Horses who raced in Maryland would get preference over horses who didn't race or raced out of state, Raffetto said.
Raffetto told the horsemen that the MJC, which provides the stalls for free, would save $600,000 to $700,000 by closing Pimlico for three months. He said that once the barns were empty, workers would perform barn maintenance and get rid of the rats.
To make room for the approximately 500 horses from Pimlico, Raffetto said, stall space at Laurel and Bowie would be reassigned. Some trainers would be cut back, and some could be cut out altogether.
"That's our right to do that," Raffetto said. "We're not obligated to give a stall for every horse in the barn. That's not the way the game is played."
He said some trainers take advantage of the free stabling in Maryland. One trainer, whom he didn't name, had 77 starts in the past nine months, and 59 were out-of-state, Raffetto said.
"Am I supposed to be worried about him?" he said.
Trainers responded that no, Raffetto needn't worry about him. So deal with him, the trainers said; don't punish everyone for the misdeeds of a few. Linda Gaudet, a trainer at Bowie, said management has tolerated such trainers so long that they've become "homesteaders."
Some trainers at Pimlico live in northern Maryland; the trek to Laurel or Bowie for morning training and then again for afternoon feeding would be intolerable, horsemen said. Willie Kee, one of several small trainers at Pimlico, said forcing him to move would put him out of business.
Finally, John Alecci, a trainer at Laurel, suggested that the MJC and Magna take $300,000 out of the $15 million they've promised for backstretch improvements and use that to keep Pimlico open. Raffetto said that wouldn't amount to any real savings, because track owners plan to spend millions more than $15 million anyway. If that's so, responded the trainers, then the savings from closing Pimlico is a drop in the corporate budget. So what's the big deal?
And that's pretty much how both sides left it. The horsemen plan to take up the issue with the Maryland Racing Commission at its next meeting, Oct. 14 at Laurel Park.
One hero to another
Post positions will be drawn Wednesday for the 11 races for Maryland-sired horses that make up the Maryland Million on Saturday at Laurel. The best stories emerge from Maryland Million races, but a pretty good one involves a horse slated to run at Laurel the day before.
The 3-year-old chestnut colt For the Fdny Heros broke his maiden in his 10th start Sept. 24 at Pimlico. His trainer, Lisa Ruppelius, got married the night before. She delayed her honeymoon to Florida one day to saddle For the Fdny Heros. And why not? He's the only horse she trains.
Ruppelius, 35, obtained her trainer's license last winter after working at various jobs on the backstretch. She still ponies horses mornings at Laurel.
She and her husband, Carl McKlveen Jr., 33, paid $7,500 for her lone trainee when he was a 2-year-old. The horse is a New York-bred, and her husband is a professional firefighter, so they named the colt For the Fdny Heros "because of our brothers who lost their lives" in the terrorist attacks, Ruppelius said.
(She knows "Heros" is spelled wrong. She ran out of letters; a horse's name is limited to 18 characters, including spaces.)