Meeting looms

issues still unsettled

Commission convenes Tuesday

Magna, horsemen yet to agree on cost sharing, 2006 dates

Horse racing


Another Maryland Racing Commission meeting is on the horizon at Laurel Park. But even though the commission directed Magna Entertainment Corp., horsemen and breeders to resolve their differences over expense sharing and racing dates for 2006 by Tuesday's meeting, it is unlikely anything will be settled by then.

Even the commission is backing off its promise to settle the issues, "if a timely agreement" is not at hand.

"The clout we have is only punitive," said commissioner John Franzone. "We don't have to allow simulcasting. We don't have to allow a race meeting. But to do either of those things would be beating up an industry that is already in dire straits because of other states with slots [supporting their racing industries].

"We've tried to use the bully pulpit and we are making progress."

Franzone said the sides are within half a percentage point (about $400,000 over two years) of a cost-sharing agreement that he said renders the issue "very minor."

But after nearly three months of sometimes emotional debate over 2006 racing dates, there now seems no urgency to settle the matter.

Maryland Jockey Club chief operating officer Lou Raffetto and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association executive secretary Wayne Wright said in separate conversations that each is willing to go into 2006 under the existing agreement that requires five-days-a-week racing until the day after the Belmont Stakes.

"It's unsettling not to have this done," Wright said, "but we're making every effort. We'll get this approved and then continue to talk."

Said Raffetto: "We'll follow what the horsemen's contract calls for. That's what they want and I feel we have the horseflesh to maintain it through the wintertime. And with racing five days, it allows the loss of a day or two for weather."

Since September, Magna officials have stressed the need to cut the schedule to raise purse money necessary to compete against slots-supported racing states.

But Magna withdrew its plan to cut Maryland's racing days from nearly 200 to 112, when the commission ruled that Magna and the horsemen already had an agreement through the middle of June 2006.

Directed to negotiate a new agreement on racing dates by the November meeting, the sides failed when Magna introduced the expense-sharing issue and included a request for retroactive payments.

Commission chairman John McDaniel again told the parties to reach an agreement on dates and cost sharing by December or risk having the commission do it for them.

McDaniel, in business meetings all week, could not be reached for comment. But Franzone said the commission's hands are almost tied when it comes to taking decisive action.

"Besides yelling and screaming, there are no other avenues available," he said.

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