Slots rejection leaves state horsemen reeling

Foreman: `This ... is going to crush the ... industry'

April 10, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Participants in Maryland's racing industry reacted swiftly and negatively yesterday to the apparent death of slot-machine legislation in Annapolis. They said racing and breeding in the state would continue to suffer without proceeds from slots.

"Our horsemen have been hanging on in hopes of something getting done here," said Alan Foreman, attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents trainers and owners of horses.

"This will probably be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I expect an exodus of horsemen and horses. This literally is going to crush the Maryland racing industry."

The thoroughbred and standardbred industries in Maryland had hoped for financial help from slot machines so they could surpass or at least keep pace with neighboring states that have slots.

The machines at Delaware and West Virginia tracks have boosted purses - the prizes for which horses race - to such levels that horses and bettors have left Maryland for the more lucrative programs in those states.

What's more, slot machines recently began operating at tracks in New York. And Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering them for their tracks.

"We have an existing Maryland industry that employs thousands of Marylanders that continues to struggle and suffer because we can't compete on a level playing field with our neighbors in Delaware and West Virginia," said Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club.

"I only hope that Pennsylvania doesn't follow through with its plan to put slots at racetracks anytime soon. If that happens, I don't know how we can continue to put on anything remotely resembling the racing program we have now."

Magna Entertainment Corp., parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, has announced plans to rebuild Pimlico and Laurel Park, the state's major thoroughbred tracks. Magna officials have pledged to do that with or without slots.

Asked about those plans, De Francis said: "Those questions right now I can't answer."

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the thoroughbred operation would end the year with a projected $1.5 million shortage in purse money. In other words, it will have paid that much more in purses than it took in from its share of the handle, or money wagered. A percentage of the handle is how purses are funded.

"We're going to have to step back and figure out how to deal with this," Raffetto said. "Is it lowering purses? Is it racing fewer days? I think it's all the above."

Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said business already appears to be down about a quarter or a third this spring in terms of mares being bred to Maryland stallions, mares being boarded at Maryland farms and foals being born in Maryland.

Owners of mares are taking them to farms and stallions in states where the financial incentives for breeding horses are greater. It's only going to get worse, Bowman said.

"We've never cried wolf here," he said. "This won't be a death blow to the industry. But as far as having a significant impact nationally, this is a stranglehold we may not be able to get out of. ... I think you're going to see farms literally folding."

Mike Pons runs Country Life Farm near Bel Air with his brother, Josh, and is past president of the breeders' association. He said Country Life has begun sending more mares out of state, especially to New York, to have their foals.

Such horses earn bonuses for racing in the state where they were born. Pons said Country Life would continue doing business regionally rather than just in Maryland, but that he didn't foresee the farm moving out of state.

"Those of us entrenched here will find a way to survive," Pons said. "But it sure is disheartening. We feel like we've been kicked in the teeth again."

Dale Capuano, a leading trainer in Maryland, said he had remained optimistic to the last minute that legislators would agree upon slots legislation.

"This is a real blow," he said. "It's terrible. You will see people [involved in Maryland racing] leave, downsize, get out. We're looking at major cuts. It's crazy."

Capuano said he'd like to know how one person - House Speaker Michael E. Busch - could single-handedly defeat slots when the polls show a majority of Marylanders want them.

"How can one man have so much control?" Capuano said. "Somebody needs to explain that to the public."

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