As 2003 draws to a close, the Maryland Jockey Club faces what Joe De Francis calls "the toughest year we've had in the last decade."
De Francis, president and CEO of the company that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, says it will be a close call whether the MJC finishes the year in the black or the red. Eleven cancellations of live racing because of inclement weather - and two partial cancellations - turned what would have been a mediocre year into a "disastrous year," De Francis said.
"When it's not been snowing or blowing or raining or sleeting or hurricaning," De Francis said, "even on normal days the general trend of business has been soft."
After horsemen threatened to cut off simulcasting, the MJC agreed to keep the Pimlico stable open for the winter. MJC officials said closing it would have saved $600,000 to $700,000. De Francis later canceled the company Christmas party.
"I'd rather cancel the Christmas party than lay somebody off," De Francis said. "We're trying to look under every rock behind every tree for cost-savings this year."
Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said if the legislature doesn't provide money for purses during its upcoming session, then purses will have to be severely cut or racing days reduced. A modest purse cut of $500 to $1,000 per race takes effect after the new year.
However, Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said horsemen have no interest in cutting purses for non-stakes races or in reducing race days. He said they prefer slicing from the Pimlico stakes schedule this spring.
Meanwhile, the average field size at Laurel has risen from eight horses per race to nearly nine since Delaware Park closed six weeks ago. Track management has made it clear it expects horsemen stabled here to race here, and horsemen have supported the program during times that everyone in racing agrees have been difficult.
The royally bred Carnivalay, who was Maryland stallion of the year in 1990, has been retired from stud duty at Country Life Farm because of decreased fertility. He is 22.
A son of Northern Dancer and the outstanding broodmare Obeah, Carnivalay became an instant sensation in 1989 when three horses from his first crop won graded stakes and his half-sister Go For Wand captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies en route to the first of two Eclipse awards.
Carnivalay sired 35 stakes winners, including Ameri Valay, who earned $742,779 and in turn sired Magic Weisner, runner-up in the 2002 Preakness. Carnivalay's offspring have earned more than $25 million, and many are still racing. The New York-based Aggadan finished second in the Grade I Vosburgh at Belmont Park and finished second yesterday in the Challedon Stakes at Laurel Park.
Josh Pons, who runs Country Life with his brother, Mike, said Carnivalay could have been even more successful except that "his babies were a little obstreperous. They were hot-blooded Northern Dancer types who gave trainers and exercise riders fits. I think that put the brakes on him a little bit."
Pons said Carnivalay will remain at Country Life where "everybody loves him. He's a really cool horse. He'll have a good home."
Something about Murmur
The stallion Louis Quatorze barely had time to settle in at Murmur Farm in Darlington when one of his sons impressively won a stakes race. If that sounds familiar, that's because the same thing happened when Audrey and Allen Murray brought the stallion Our Emblem to Murmur in late 2001. His offspring started winning races across the country, led by his son War Emblem, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2002.
After selling Our Emblem for about $10 million, the Murrays bought Louis Quatorze, winner of the 1996 Preakness. He arrived at Murmur last month, and last Saturday his son, Second of June, defeated the Grade I winner Silver Wagon in the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder. The same day Louis Quatorze had another winner in a maiden-special-weight at Philadelphia Park.
Two or three potential shareholders who were on the fence quickly snatched up the last shares in Louis Quatorze for $15,000 each, Audrey Murray said. And yes, the phone has been ringing off the hook for bookings at $6,000. It's shades of Our Emblem all over again.
Down the stretch
The battle for highest win percentage this year by a trainer in Maryland likely will go down to the wire. Entering the weekend, Tony Dutrow led Howard Wolfendale, 29.6 percent to 28 percent. Dale Capuano leads Maryland trainers in wins with 96. ...
The race for wins by jockeys could tighten up as Mario Pino won two Friday, one yesterday and inched within eight of Ramon Dominguez, who has taken the rest of the year off. Dominguez won 185 races in Maryland, and Pino has won 177. ...