Pimlico plans to scale back races in '06

Magna says city track will operate 18 days

Laurel operations also cut

Some fear loss of Preakness

Move is `wake-up call' to OK slots, Ehrlich says

September 08, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Canadian owner of Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course said yesterday that it would operate the famed track for just 18 days next year as a way to cut costs and boost purse money, but some politicians fear the reduction could be a prelude to closing the facility and moving the Preakness Stakes out of Maryland.

Magna Entertainment Corp. officials insisted that cutting the number of racing days at Pimlico and Laurel Park, its second Maryland track, from 196 to 112 is not a retreat from the state but a move to strengthen the sport. Lower costs will lead to higher prize money to attract better-quality horses and more bettors to state tracks, they said.

Despite those assurances and a promise from the company that it intends to keep the Preakness - the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown - in Baltimore, the state's leading slots proponents called the proposal an ominous sign that the industry will crumble without expanded gambling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller immediately called for a special session of the General Assembly to legalize slots as a way to help Maryland tracks compete with those in neighboring states where slots are legal such as Delaware, West Virginia, and, soon, Pennsylvania.

"Magna is not kidding around," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has made passage of a slots bill his top priority. "This has got to be a wake-up call."

Paul Cellucci, the former Massachusetts governor who is vice president of corporate development for Magna, said the move is a response to competition from states with slot machines, but he said it should not be viewed as a threat to leave the state.

"The goal of this plan is to maintain thoroughbred horse racing in Maryland and keep the Preakness in Baltimore, where we want it to be," Cellucci said.

Magna's proposal, which requires approval from the Maryland Racing Commission, would reduce racing days at Laurel from about 140 to 94 and at Pimlico from 60 to 18. As a result, according to a fact sheet provided by the company, the tracks could offer average daily purses of $303,571, up from this year's average of $193,877. There will also be eight days of racing at the Maryland State Fair.

The company also proposes reducing stabling costs by selling its Bowie training facility and dedicating at least half of the proceeds to new stables at Laurel. That plan would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Cellucci acknowledged that the changes would likely involve the loss of jobs. But he said the Maryland horse-racing industry has been shrinking for years, dropping from 20,000 workers a decade ago to 15,000 today.

"If we can stabilize things by making it more competitive, that's our goal," he said. "We don't want to lose any more jobs."

But Ehrlich and Miller seized on the news as fresh evidence that slots are necessary to save the horse industry. Ehrlich said the move puts Maryland one step closer to losing the Preakness, and Miller called the move an economic tragedy on the order of the loss of jobs from Bethlehem Steel.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a likely candidate for governor who favors a limited slots program at tracks, was briefed on the plan by telephone. He pressed Magna officials to increase the Pimlico race dates, spokesman Steve Kearney said, and remains concerned about the future of the track and its economic impact.

"It's important that the Preakness is staying in Baltimore, but the mayor is concerned about people losing their jobs," Kearney said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has been the chief slots opponent in Annapolis for the past three years, came out of his meeting with Cellucci with a more upbeat assessment of Magna's plans. Busch said slots never came up in the meeting, and Cellucci never suggested that the Preakness is at risk.

"It seems what Magna is doing here is trying to put the best product forward from Maryland," Busch said.

Trainers and owners at yesterday's opening of the fall meet in Laurel - where the company has spent nearly $40 million on improvements since purchasing the track in 2002 - agreed on the need to make racing in Maryland more competitive, but opinions were split on the details of Magna's plan.

Trainer Richard "Dickie" Small said the increased purses will mean better riders and better horses in Maryland.

"Racing here is strong and deep," he said. "Breeding is strong. It would be almost impossible to kill it, because Maryland horsemen rise to the occasion."

But others saw reduced racing days as a death knell.

"If it's reality, Maryland breeders will have no where to run," said trainer Beverly Heckrotte.

The desire to maintain the horse industry has been a constant part of the pitch for slots since Ehrlich took office in 2003.

Miller has pushed bills that closely mirrored Ehrlich's proposals through the Senate in each of the past three years. Slots got nowhere in the House until this year, when a bill passed with the bare minimum of votes.

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