Horsemen fume, eye response to Magna

Angry groups say denying simulcasts one option in campaign against proposal

Horse Racing

September 09, 2005|By Sandra McKee and Bill Ordine | Sandra McKee and Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

While many of Maryland's horsemen are fearful of their future after Magna Entertainment Corp. announced plans to cut the number of racing days in the state from 196 to 120 next year and close the Bowie Training Center, the leaders of prominent horsemen's groups are working on plans of resistance.

"Certainly, we think the plan as presented is one of the silliest plans ever seen," said Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Richard Hoffberger. "I'm not prepared to say everything we're going to do. Did Gen. Rommel tell the world his battle plan? Our options are somewhat limited, but they are severe and significant."

Among those options is denying the Maryland Jockey Club the right to simulcast races at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, an option given the MTHA through the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 that was amended in 2000 to accommodate simulcast racing.

It is no insignificant option, given it would cut significantly into the betting income at local tracks, where from two-thirds to three-fourths of daily wagering is based on simulcasts.

The horsemen could also, as individuals, withhold their entries or race elsewhere.

The latter could become an unwanted option. Keith Chamblin, MTHA senior vice president of marketing and industry relations, pointed out that though Maryland no longer has year-round racing, many other states on the Eastern Seaboard do. Trainers and owners, who want to have normal family lives, might well opt to leave the state in order to stay in one place most of the year.

"The fact is that nowhere is the landscape more competitive in terms of the recruitment of horses and trainers than the area around Maryland," Chamblin said.

Hoffberger said the first thing his organization will do is attend the Maryland Racing Commission meeting Tuesday at Laurel Park.

The nine-member commission will ultimately decide what the racing calendar looks like, but its actual role is likely to be as much deal broker as final arbiter.

"Magna gave what I thought was significant justification for the actions they're taking," said commission chairman Tom McDonough, who was briefed by the company Wednesday. "But I'm not sure it's significant enough, given the amount of trauma and hardship it's going to cause the grooms, the hotwalkers, the trainers.

"We want to know if there can be a compromise if one is available given that the [financial] pie is growing significantly smaller. We want to listen to the people who are going to be most adversely affected."

What the commission will probably hear is fiery talk from some horsemen.

"We'll go to the meeting and tell them we think this is a disastrous plan," Hoffberger said. "One thing Magna would not tell us when we met with them [Wednesday] was what savings their plan provides to Magna."

Another question Hoffberger said Magna officials did not answer concerned the new $20 million turf track that was used for the first time Wednesday, Laurel Park's opening day.

"I asked them, `Why spend $20 million on a new turf course and on the first day you use it say you're not going to use it next season - unless you assume you can use it in November, December, January and February, which I don't think anyone believes?"'

What answer was he given?

"I got the same thing my mother used to serve me for breakfast on Sundays when I was a kid," he said. "Waffles."

Hoffberger and Bill Boniface, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the racing commission's charter is to do what's best for racing in Maryland - not what's best for the horsemen or the track owners.

"Let's see how the commission responds to this scorched earth policy," Hoffberger said.

Racing commissioner Al Akman, a horse owner himself, recognizes that state racing regulators have to address the interests of many parties.

"We're in a position to influence both sides of the issue," Akman said. "The commission is responsible to the state and its citizens. And we want to be objective. But we also want to see racing survive."

Caught up in the requested changes is the future of Maryland Million Day.

"A lot of our revenue, used to increase this year's Million Day purses, is based on live racing," said Boniface. "And our traditional date has been October or late September. If it moves to November, it will mean a huge loss of prestige and in our ability to draw [good horses and good crowds] that day."

This year, the Maryland Million purses have all been increased by a total of about $500,000. But Boniface said much of the additional money would be lost if the number of live racing days is cut.

"Without live racing, about 80 percent of that money will be gone," he said.

Boniface said the breeding industry soon will be gone, too, under the Magna plan.

"The plan as presented is a huge detriment to our ability to get people to come here and breed to our stallions," he said. "If we go from May to November with no racing, it will cut our Maryland Bred Fund for eligible horses in half" and discourage breeding in the state.

Boniface issued a call to arms, saying it is up to every breeder and horseman to call their legislators.

"Each of us has a role to show the impact on their districts," he said. "Horse farms are part of our open space. There are small businesses that will be impacted - the small farms that grow our hay and feed. It is all part of the economic impact horse racing has in their counties.

"The state needs to step in and help. That's government's role, to help keep the economy going, and we're a huge part of the economic engine in this state."

Commissioner John Franzone seemed to agree, saying state government has to approve slot machines to pump revenue into the ailing racing industry, provide a cash infusion or perhaps both. The alternative, he said, is risking the loss of horse racing and the farms that support it.

"Then, when we're building double-decker highways around Route 695," Franzone said, "we'll wonder: How did this happen?"

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