A sad day for horsemen

Magna news mars Laurel opening

Downsizing Maryland Racing

Horse Racing

September 08, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It was opening day at Laurel Race Course, and excitement was in the air yesterday as the track readied for its first day of competition with its brand new turf course. But a beautiful day became much less sunny when word spread that Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Laurel and Pimlico, wants to cut the number of racing days in the state by nearly half next year.

"I'm shocked," said Maryland's leading trainer, Dale Capuano. "I certainly didn't expect to hear this on our first day of racing at Laurel. If what I've heard is the case, there will be big consequences."

Magna said it is necessary to limit Maryland racing to increase the purses to numbers that will be competitive with those being paid in Delaware, West Virginia and, soon, Pennsylvania.

The proposal, which must be approved by the Maryland Racing Commission, would keep the tracks dark from May 21 through Nov. 2, aside from the eight-day meet at Timonium during the Maryland State Fair, Aug. 26 through Sept 4. Pimlico would run 18 days, ending on Preakness Day.

After running about 200 days in 2004 and 2005, thoroughbreds would race 120 days in 2006.

Jockey Jeremy Rose, who rode Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex to victory in last spring's Triple Crown series, voiced his displeasure after riding Promenade Girl to victory in the $75,000 Twixt Stakes for 3-year-old Maryland-bred fillies.

"It's very disappointing to me," he said. "This is where I started my career. It used to be the place to be, but now it's being cut to pieces."

Assistant trainer Nick Capuano, a cousin of Dale Capuano, had no trouble voicing a clear opinion.

"It stinks!" he said. "You lose days, and that's money out of our pockets. They say the purses will be bigger, but then you have to spend the extra money because you have to ship elsewhere to race. It defeats the purpose.

"And to cut the days in half, that means the other six months you're on the road -- Charles Town, Delaware, New York, New Jersey -- and [the Maryland tracks] cry now when you ship. They want their cake and to eat it, too."

But Magna officials said the cut is necessary because Maryland is surrounded by tracks whose purses are supplemented by slot machine revenue.

Magna's proposal would increase purse money at Laurel and Pimlico from the current $193,877 a day to $303,571.

"I think it is 100 percent true that we need to increase our purses to attract more horses," said trainer Tim Hooper.

"You get pressure from owners to run their horses for more money. Maryland has increased its purses, but it's still hard to compete against Delaware and Charles Town, and once Pennsylvania has its act together, they'll make Delaware and Charles Town look like nothing."

Magna also is proposing to close the Bowie Training Center permanently at the end of next May and sell its land.

The closing of Bowie would displace an estimated 800 to 1,000 horses. It could also cost the smallest wage earners -- grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders -- their jobs.

Trainer Mark Shuman, who has most of his horses at a private training center in Oxford, Pa., called the news "unfortunate" for Maryland horsemen.

"If they're going to cut Maryland's racing in half, they don't need barns, anyway, because they're just going to chase everyone out of the state," said Shuman. "I understand it's a business and Magna has a business to run. ... If the people in Maryland don't want slots, then maybe it would be better for Magna and Maryland racing to let someone else buy it."

Trainer Beverly Heckrotte said the new proposal "will kill" Maryland breeding, and Tom Bowman, former president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, didn't disagree.

Bowman, still a member of the MHBA board of directors, is one of three partners in Northview Farm in Chesapeake City.

"We've lost about ... 50 percent of the horse population over the last 10 [years]," he said. "Only a handful of breeding farms are left, and they're not as active bringing in stallions. I can't leave because my farm is here, but the people who keep their horses here are leaving. ...

"A lot of [horse people] don't know anything else, and they can't go anywhere else. A lot of them will become instantaneously wealthy when they sell their 300 acres in Carroll County or wherever, but then they lose a way of life that's been in their family for generations."

Only one man seemed to find anything to smile about after yesterday's news. Veteran trainer Richard "Dickie" Small said the limited number of days could be good for state racing.

"The young trainers won't see this," he said. "But when I started training, back in the '50s and '60s, we didn't have summer racing in Maryland. We didn't have year-round racing until the '70s. When you don't have racing, you go where the horses fit and stables move around, running against different horses all the time. It makes for better racing. I think it's a positive."

Sun staff writer Bill Ordine contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.