Tempers flare at meeting on winter plan for Pimlico

Discrimination accusation brings heated responses

Horse Racing

October 15, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

In a raucous meeting marked by a commissioner's obscenity-filled response to charges of discrimination, the Maryland Racing Commission voted yesterday to review the Maryland Jockey Club's documentation for evicting trainers and closing the Pimlico stable for the winter.

More than 100 trainers and backstretch employees attended the meeting in the Ruffian Room at Laurel Park.

Many stepped forward to plead their case for keeping Pimlico's barns open and for regaining stall space reduced or eliminated by Maryland Jockey Club racing officials.

The MJC had announced the closing of the Pimlico stable for three months this winter as primarily a means of saving $600,000 to $700,000.

To make room for Pimlico's horses at its other training centers at Laurel and Bowie, MJC officials cut the number of stalls allotted to nearly all trainers and evicted about a dozen trainers at Bowie. The Maryalnd Jockey Club provides stalls for free.

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said the evictions were based on trainers' participation in Maryland races. Trainers who stable their horses in Maryland but keep running them at out-of-state tracks are no longer welcome here, Raffetto said.

However, several trainers told commissioners they believe the evictions were, in part, discriminatory, that African-American trainers and "trainers of color," especially at Bowie, had had their stall allotment cut dramatically or withdrawn completely.

Raffetto responded that stalls were cut based on "lack of support of Maryland racing and for no other reason." He said that race, creed or color had nothing to do with it.

Lou Ulman, a commissioner, added fuel to an escalating volatile scene by asking Raffetto whether the MJC had an affirmative-action program. Bruce Spizler, the commission's lawyer, interjected that discrimination must be shown before affirmative action needs to be addressed.

Spizler said that based on what commissioners had heard, no discrimination had been demonstrated. Ulman, a lawyer, said he disagreed.

Suddenly, Al Akman, a commissioner who had been silent until then, slammed the palm of his right hand on the table. He stood up and said, loudly and with expletives, that he was sick and tired of the talk of discrimination and that the cutbacks had nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with not running horses in Maryland.

His several-minute outburst stunned the crowd. After the meeting in a calmer tone, Akman, a longtime horse owner familiar with the barn areas and a former union executive, said: "There's no place in the American workforce that has less discrimination than the racetrack. Minorities at racetracks have been welcome all my life."

The commissioners adjourned after deciding to study the material submitted by the MJC and to discuss it again at its next meeting, Nov. 11 at Laurel. With the meeting over, a fuming Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the MJC, said Ulman's comment about possible discrimination was "absolutely outrageous."

His face flushed and his voice rising in anger, De Francis said: "I have never seen a racing commissioner engage in conduct so irresponsible as Lou Ulman just now."

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