Racing plan raises hopes

Compromise offers 180 days

horsemen, breeders will vote

December 14, 2005|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

The state's horsemen appear ready to approve a compromise proposal on 2006 racing dates for Maryland's tracks.

Magna Entertainment Corp., owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, presented a plan for 180 days of live racing to representatives of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association on Monday night.

The new proposal also keeps barns at Laurel, Pimlico and the Bowie Training Center open and asks the horsemen for substantial contributions to help cover operating costs.

The association's boards will vote on the plan next week. The only stumbling block may be Magna's request that the horsemen help defray the tracks' expenses.

In response, the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday approved the request by the tracks' operator, the Maryland Jockey Club, for 75 days of live racing and 30 days of simulcasting-only for the 2006 Laurel winter meeting, which will run from Jan. 1 through April 16.

The commission will consider the full 2006 plan at its next meeting, Jan. 10.

Laurel will conduct live racing Wednesdays through Sundays -- except for Monday racing on Jan. 2, 16 and 20 replacing Wednesday cards.

Commission chairman John McDaniel complimented all sides.

"I, for one, am delighted by the cooperation," McDaniel said.

Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, and Don Amos, Magna's chief operating officer nationwide, came up with the proposal after conversations with MTHA executive secretary Wayne Wright, MTHA counsel Alan Foreman and MHBA executive director Crickett Goodall at a racing industry symposium in Arizona last week.

"I think the proposal evolved because everyone recognizes the importance of being willing to compromise for industry unity and cohesiveness at one of the most critical times in the history of thoroughbred racing in Maryland," De Francis said.

The new proposal is vastly different from the one De Francis presented three months ago and described as necessary to help Maryland racing survive amid states where horse racing is supported by slot machine revenue.

Yesterday, De Francis said that since Magna's initial proposal -- 112 days of live racing, the permanent closing of Bowie and the closing of the barns for about four months at Laurel and Pimlico after the spring meet -- it has become apparent Pennsylvania will not get its slots program running as quickly as expected.

"Make no mistake, when Pennsylvania gets its program operational, it will hit us with hurricane force," De Francis said. "But we are comfortable that the compromise we've proposed for 2006 will work for 2006. And it's a relief to move the ball. We haven't scored the touchdown yet, but we're in the red zone."

Henry Fawell, spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said: "The governor believes this is a good compromise. The unavoidable reality is that the status quo is unsustainable. However, it does not stop the bleeding. The industry continues to struggle. There are 20,000 jobs in the racing industry that are dependent on [House Speaker Michael E.] Busch to come forward and negotiate in good faith on a slots bill."

Wright and Foreman also cautioned that the proposal is not a done deal. The proposal will go to the MTHA board without a recommendation.

Goodall said that, while there may not be a statement of support when the MHBA board meets, the plan would not be presented if the leadership did not find it a reasonable approach with a chance of working.

"I have a sense it will pass both groups," she said. "I'm sure there will be negotiations continuing until the last minute ... but that's the way these things work."

Note -- The commission also approved a request from Cloverleaf Enterprises to conduct 100 days of live harness racing and 262 days of simulcasting in 2006 at Rosecroft Raceway.

smm2me@aol.com

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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