Pennsylvania puts moving on Maryland racing minds

Horse racing: With slots coming in to the north, many of Maryland's horsemen are calling it quits in the state they've long called home.

Horse Racing

September 09, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Two days after Pennsylvania legalized slot machines on July 5, Tom Bowman received a call from an out-of-state client who had kept horses for years at Bowman's farm in Maryland. The man told Bowman to send his five horses to a farm in Pennsylvania.

"He just said, `I'm sorry, but it doesn't make any sense to have horses in Maryland anymore,' " said Bowman, past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "And you have to agree with him."

Bowman's experience is typical of what has happened since July 5, when Pennsylvania authorized up to 61,000 slot machines at 14 locations, including seven racetracks.

Pennsylvania became the third state surrounding Maryland to legalize slots and to devote a portion of revenue to horse racing. About 12 percent of slots' proceeds will go to bolster Pennsylvania's racing and breeding industries.

Legislative leaders here have failed in a last-ditch effort to place a slots referendum on the November ballot, and Maryland horsemen and breeders have begun what many in racing said was inevitable as long as slots remained forbidden: the exodus of horses, horsemen and horse farms.

Tony Dutrow, one of the few Maryland trainers of horses good enough to win stakes in New York, has bought a house near Philadelphia Park and is selling his Howard County home. Dutrow is leaving his native state and taking his wife, their three children and his 50 high-quality horses with him.

"I'm not blaming the racetrack, and I'm not blaming the horse industry," Dutrow said. "I am absolutely blaming the politicians in Maryland. They have turned their backs on the people of Maryland and the horse industry of Maryland."

Four other well-known Maryland trainers who, along with Dutrow, manage more than 150 horses, and several prominent breeders have abandoned Maryland or are actively pursing ventures in other states, primarily Pennsylvania. And Mario Pino, the state's foremost jockey, might be leaving.

John Scanlan, who trained some of the best-bred horses in Maryland, including the multiple-Grade I-winning Toccet, has relocated his 25 horses to Philadelphia Park. John Salzman, who trained the popular Xtra Heat, winner of more stakes than any filly or mare in North America, is selling his Carroll County farm and considering moving out of state. Salzman and his son, Tim, train 40 horses.

Scott Lake, who led the nation's trainers in wins three of the past four years, cut his Maryland operation to 20 from 50 horses in the past year. He said he'll likely move altogether when slots proceeds begin enriching Philadelphia Park's purses.

Dale Capuano, the leading trainer in Maryland six of the past seven years, has requested 44 stalls at Philadelphia Park. If he gets them, he said, then he'll take his best 44 horses. The 40 or so that remain would be his "cheaper" ones, as he put it. They would fit well with the kind of racing Maryland will be offering, he said.

"No question we'll be the minor league of the mid-Atlantic," Capuano said.

And Pino, 42, who has ridden more winners in Maryland than anyone, is riding this summer at Delaware Park for the first time since launching his career in Maryland 25 years ago. Pino might not return, he said.

`Just standing still'

"I live in Maryland; I'd much rather race here," said Pino, who resides in Ellicott City with his wife and three children. "But other states are moving forward. Maryland's just standing still."

Three major horse farms near Chesapeake City in Cecil County are for sale. Ron Cullis, owner of Plane Tree, said the state's troubled horse industry was a factor in his selling the 112-acre farm. Owners of Muirfield East and Sycamore Hall said they are selling for personal reasons.

Cullis said Maryland's situation has deterred potential buyers looking for a horse farm. "They've decided the likelihood of Maryland's getting slots, ultimately, is there, but they're not prepared to wait it out," he said.

The situation is dire for Maryland's standardbred (harness) industry, which has dwindled steadily. A smaller, more fragile industry than its thoroughbred counterpart, it has already lost many of its best stallions, and its breeding operations have declined precipitously.

From 1995 to 2003, standardbred stallions in Maryland decreased from 41 to 28, mares bred to those stallions dropped from 608 to 266 and Maryland-sired yearlings nominated to run in stakes at Rosecroft Raceway, a year-round harness track, plummeted from 415 to 129.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the horse industry is "an economic engine that needs to be preserved. We need slots. Without them, we're going to keep falling behind. We're frustrated by the lack of progress in finding a solution that is acceptable to everybody."

He said horse racing's impact on the state's economy is anywhere from $650,000 to $800,000 per year. The impact of the horse industry, including sport and pleasure riding, is about $2 billion per year, he said.

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