Horsemen, breeders ask panel to reject Magna's plan

Commission delays decision on 2006 schedule until Oct. 6

Horse Racing

September 14, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Maryland's horsemen and breeders made impassioned pleas to the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday in an effort to stop Magna Entertainment Corp. from implementing a plan that would close down thoroughbred racing from mid-May through October next year and from selling the Bowie Training Center and its land.

After hearing more than 90 minutes of testimony - mostly about how Magna's plan to nearly halve the state's racing dates would kill horse racing in Maryland - the commission voted to defer a decision on the proposal until its Oct. 6 meeting.

"People need to be talked to and to talk to each other," said commission chairman Tom McDonough. "I'd also suggest it would be nice if everyone here would talk to Mr. Busch [House Speaker Michael E. Busch] about the problem. ... It behooves everyone to do some talking."

After the meeting, commissioner Alvin Akman said: "I think it highly unlikely the Magna proposal will pass as is. I hope there are still areas to explore on both sides. But we still have to look to Annapolis to help find other solutions."

Busch has been the General Assembly's chief opponent to legalizing slot machines in order to boost horse racing. However, last week he and others were working on legislation that would include purse subsidies and other measures to help the industry.

During yesterday's meeting at Laurel Park, Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and attorney Alan Foreman pointed out the MTHA already has an operating agreement with Laurel and Pimlico Race Course - an agreement assumed by Magna when it bought controlling interest three years ago - that calls for five days of racing each week for not less than 220 days a year.

Magna has proposed running 112 days in 2006.

Foreman told the commission that though the horsemen have been understanding of racing's plight in the state and agreed to 196 racing days for this past year, the agreement remains in effect through the 2006 Belmont Stakes.

"That means 110 days, five days a week through Belmont Day next year," said Wright. "A deal is a deal. We've massaged it, but if Magna's current proposal is put in effect, it will be in clear violation of an already existing agreement."

If the agreement is ignored, the MTHA can ask the commission to enforce it or the horsemen could go to court.

Or, Foreman said, the MTHA has another form of leverage.

"It is true Magna can go ahead with its plans without an agreement with the horsemen," he said. "But if it comes to that, we control simulcasting. When two-thirds or more of your business is simulcasting, it is a significant penalty. It is in the best interest of the tracks to have an agreement with us."

But Magna cannot conduct racing without the approval of the Maryland Racing Commission, which has the final say.

"They have to get approval to run anything," McDonough said, adding, "We could approve a partial schedule."

During the meeting, commissioner Terry Saxon chided Magna for changing its management representatives (at least five different representatives in the past three years). Frequent changes, he said, make it difficult for the Maryland horse industry to develop working relationships.

And he chided the horsemen and breeders for their continued attacks on Busch.

"Every time I read something, someone is kicking him in the knee," Saxon said. "There is plenty of room for finger pointing to go around. Now, maybe we can get together as a group and go talk to someone about something."

Akman said: "I know everyone is quick to say it isn't Annapolis' problem. But all the other states around us have found their solutions from their legislatures. It's the landscape we're in, and we have to compete on the same basis. In absence of real help from Annapolis, we can't compete."

But Akman said all the speakers at yesterday's meeting, including Magna officials, were simply talking about the symptoms of the problems.

"No one," he said, "is dealing with the illness. This patient is ultimately going to die if we can't get it real help.`

Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said she has sent a letter to every member of the Maryland legislature and to the commission, expressing her concerns for the industry. Yesterday, she said she is worried the breeding industry is "getting lost."

"We have different concerns from the horsemen," she said. "Our constituency is not as transient. When they leave, they will be gone forever. But our fates our intertwined. The results of what they do will have long-term impact on the breeders. ... If [the Magna plan] is passed, it will have an immediate impact of about $1 million. The breed fund will decline, the demand to breed here will decline. The farms will be sold, and they won't be back. ... We need you to help us."

Jack Mosner, a former commissioner who is a board member of the State Fair and the Maryland Million, said he believes Magna "is trying to balance its books on the backs of Maryland's horsemen."

Maryland Jockey Club president and chief executive officer Joe De Francis said what he heard tugged at his heart, but he also said Magna's plan is "our best effort" to keep Maryland racing viable.

"This is a business plan," De Francis said, his voice rising. "It is not a negotiable document. ... Churchill Downs has sold Hollywood Park to a real estate developer. In two years, if there are no slots in California, it will be closed down and developed. And if there was anyone other than Frank Stronach running a public company, he would act with a cold heart and do the same thing here. But that's not what we're doing."

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