Views on race dates at odds

Raffetto optimistic on December deal

horsemen less so


Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said yesterday he believes horsemen and Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Maryland's thoroughbred racetracks, will reach an agreement by December on racing dates.

But not everyone is quite so optimistic.

"We are making a general request for dates at this November meeting and then will ask for specific dates for Laurel and/or Pimlico at the December meeting," Raffetto said. "I think we will reach a compromise on the number of days at between 170 and 180."

Raffetto added he had told the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association that if an agreement on the racing dates is reached, Magna will keep the barn areas open at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the Bowie Training Center throughout next year.

But MTHA executive secretary Wayne Wright said he is "not quite sure nor overly optimistic that a resolution is close at hand - or will come anytime soon" because there are a number of side issues that still need to be resolved.

Two months ago, Magna asked the Maryland Racing Commission to cut the number of live racing days in Maryland from 198 to 112 and proposed closing all stables at Laurel and Pimlico from mid-June until late October. Magna also said it wanted to close the Bowie Training Center permanently and sell the land.

Last month, Magna withdrew its proposal when it became apparent the commission would not approve it and John McDaniel, the commission's new chairman, directed Magna, the horsemen and the breeders to sit down and work out an agreement by the time of the commission's Nov. 8 meeting at Laurel.

Yesterday, McDaniel said he does not know what progress the parties have made, but did say: "I think there will be a degree of irritation if they haven't demonstrated they have tried to reach an accord.

"The commission has sweeping authority and can do almost anything. I believe it is in the best interest of the parties involved to come to an agreement on a voluntary basis. If they don't, the horsemen as well as the tracks will be damaged.

"They will have ceded their responsibilities to a third party. As a businessman, I don't like that. I'm hopeful they're making progress, but if we find one party is stonewalling, I think the commission would react strongly."

Among the issues acting as stumbling blocks are specific race dates, possible purse increases and expense contributions that have been made by horsemen and breeders in the past to defray various costs, including those for simulcasting, that Magna wants restored.

"[The expense contribution agreement] expired in 2004," said MTHA president Richard Hoffberger. "The question is how much do we pay of that going into the future and how do we handle any contributions that we haven't made since the contract expired.

"The two things are not directly related, but the horsemen are concerned about the number of racing days and the track wants a contribution for those expenses. It's a, `We'll talk about what you want to talk about if you talk about what we want to talk about.'

"Lou and I haven't reached a conclusion on how that will work out."

Before 1999, the horsemen/breeders paid as much as $3.2 million a year for those expenses, as the tracks simply deducted the various costs of operations and then split the simulcasting profits 50-50.

But in 1999, it was decided the horsemen/breeders would pay a 6 percent fee, which was about $2.4 or $2.5 million, and that agreement was tied into an arrangement involving day racing at Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County.

When Rosecroft no longer held day racing and the agreement expired in June 2004, the horsemen no longer felt they had to contribute the 6 percent and didn't. And neither did the track resume its old practice of simply deducting the expenses and splitting the leftover profits.

Behind the scenes, those close to the negotiations who are familiar with Wednesday's meeting, which is expected to be the last before Tuesday's commission meeting, said horsemen and breeder representatives left the meeting feeling less than hopeful about a quick solution.

But Hoffberger said all sides are working toward trying to resolve the issues and Raffetto said he wants to work with the horsemen and reach an equitable settlement.

"It's always about money," Hoffberger said. "We don't discuss philosophy. I'm not sure we'll reach an agreement by the December meeting, but I hope we will. I'm willing to ask our board to pay a share, but how much and whether the track will agree with what my board wants to do, we still have to see."

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