Defeat of slots legislation has state's racing at a loss

ON HORSE RACING

April 18, 2004|By TOM KEYSER

You could laugh, or you could cry.

On Wednesday, Dale Capuano stepped on a grate outside the paddock at Pimlico Race Course, and the grate collapsed. The veteran trainer fell into water above his knees.

Fortunately, he wasn't hurt, and once he realized that, he started laughing. He agreed later that he just as easily could have cried, as the collapsing grate symbolized Maryland racing.

"People are really down," Capuano said. "We thought we had a pretty good chance to get something done in Annapolis this year."

Being hopeful made the defeat of slots legislation for the second straight year even harder to take, Capuano said.

"That took the wind out of people's sails," he said. "Racing's all about hope. You always hope the next horse you get is going to be the big horse. You always hope tomorrow will be better than today.

"Well, it's going to be a long time waiting for tomorrow. Things are going to get a lot worse before there's any opportunity for them to get better."

Simulcasting dispute

The dispute over simulcasting between the standardbred factions at Rosecroft Raceway and the state's thoroughbred factions will result in patrons not being able to bet on thoroughbred simulcasts at Rosecroft and not being able to bet at all at Pimlico and Laurel Park after 6:15 p.m.

This is a dispute that's broken out before. It's complicated. It's about money. It's not about serving the patron.

Nobody heard much about simulcasting conflicts for the past four years. That's because the breeders, horsemen and track owners at Rosecroft signed a four-year revenue-sharing agreement in 2000 with the breeders, horsemen and track owners at Pimlico and Laurel Park. The agreement expired March 31. Efforts to extend it failed.

On Wednesday, the Rosecroft faction requested in a letter that the Maryland Racing Commission allow it to negotiate its own deals for thoroughbred simulcasts, rather than obtain them through the Maryland Jockey Club, as it has had to do in the past.

The next day, the board of directors of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association - with the backing of the breeders and the MJC - voted to prohibit Rosecroft from showing and taking bets on all thoroughbred simulcasts, including ones from Pimlico.

The ban begins tomorrow. Rosecroft will operate day and night, accepting bets on harness racing. Pimlico and Laurel Park will close at 6:15 p.m., because state law says, without a simulcasting agreement, Rosecroft can force the thoroughbred tracks to close at night. On the books since the early 1980s, the law was designed to protect night harness racing.

This dispute at this time, in the wake of the slots defeat and financial woes facing the industry, probably seems foolish to patrons. But leaders of both sides say they believe, in the long run, operating independently of the other will be financially beneficial.

Somewhere along the line, the sides likely will agree to a deal that allows Pimlico and Laurel Park races to be simulcast at Rosecroft. Until then, a news release by the thoroughbred side invited fans of thoroughbred racing to wager anywhere in the state except at Rosecroft.

"We know that this change will inconvenience some of our customers, and [we] deeply regret and sincerely apologize for this inconvenience," the release said.

Rosecroft deal scrutiny

On Tuesday, the racing commission will hear testimony from both sides on the simulcast dispute. The commission meeting will begin at noon at the North East Racing and Sports Club - the old Poor Jimmy's OTB - in North East in Cecil County.

Commissioners have reserved Wednesday at Pimlico for a continuation of the meeting, believing that one day probably won't be enough. That's because the commission also will consider Northwind Racing's proposed deal to buy Rosecroft.

That's going to be interesting, because Mark Ricigliano, a Laurel businessman and Rosecroft veterinarian, reached an agreement with the Rosecroft horsemen, who own the track, to buy it. Then, he brought in Greenwood Racing, which owns Philadelphia Park, as a 90 percent partner.

The Rosecroft horsemen had earlier refused to sell to Greenwood. Some felt deceived, as did some racing commissioners who had met with Ricigliano and believed he was going to be majority owner.

Tough summer ahead

Leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Maryland Jockey Club acknowledge that without slots, cuts in racing will be needed, but they're not taking drastic action yet.

Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the MTHA, said that without cutbacks the purse account will close the year $2 million to $3 million in the red. The only way to avert that is to run fewer races per day, to cut purses and/or to cut racing days. Those decisions will be made in coming weeks, Wright said.

He said there's little left to cut from stakes, as the stakes program has already been "decimated." Said Capuano, the trainer: "We're getting to the point of Philadelphia Park or some place like that."

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said the Pimlico Special definitely will take place May 14, the day before the Preakness. He declined to say how the track will finance the $500,000. Horsemen have refused to let it come out of their purse account.

With hefty purses at Delaware Park and Monmouth Park, with Charles Town continuing to offer rich races for cheap horses and with the prospect of Laurel's stable being closed while the track surfaces are rebuilt, this is going to be a difficult summer.

"We're going to be in a tough spot," Raffetto said. "Something's got to give."

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