On a day when Maryland horsemen learned a minimum of 15 days will be cut from the 2008 racing schedule and heard of a possible shutdown of Pimlico Race Course for half the year, the chairman of the company that owns the state's thoroughbred tracks said he still wants to "revitalize" Maryland's racing industry.
At yesterday's Maryland Racing Commission meeting, Lou Raffetto, Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer, pointed to the lack of purse money and announced plans to cut one live racing day a week from the Laurel Park winter meet, which runs Jan. 1 through April 13. A year ago, the meet raced five-day weeks.
Raffetto said if nothing positive happens for the horse industry in the special legislative session or early in the regularly scheduled session next year, he would anticipate coming back to the commission and asking to cut the spring meet at Pimlico from eight weeks to five.
That would mean thoroughbred racing in Maryland probably would close down immediately after Preakness weekend in May and - except for the Timonium meet during the state fair - would not be back until Laurel reopens in late September.
"We'd be closed for four months," Raffetto said. "And if that happens, I believe we would end up closing Pimlico to training for six months, maybe from September through March."
Such a move would affect 40 to 50 trainers, about 250 backstretch employees, 25 maintenance and security workers and approximately 500 horses.
The closure could leave about 300 of the horses homeless - there are only 200 empty stalls among the 1,850 available at Laurel and the Bowie Training Center.
Earlier, Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment Corp., made a rare appearance before the commission.
Stronach's company bought the last remaining shares of stock in the Maryland Jockey Club, which controls Pimlico and Laurel, from Joe and Karin De Francis in a deal announced Sept. 24. Stronach said yesterday he came before the board to voice his love for the sport, his respect for the De Francis family and to announce that Magna, like any business taking over the operation of a company, "will be doing things a little differently."
"I hope we will do it a little better, too," Stronach said. "I want to state that I will go way out of my way to revitalize horse racing in Maryland."
Stronach did not offer immediate answers as to how that can be done without the passage of slots legislation, saying only he is eager to work on solutions with the commission and the horsemen groups "to find what else can we do."
Stronach said he "didn't want to make anyone jittery by voicing vague ideas."
After the commission approved the request for the shorter winter meet, chairman John Franzone said the industry "is in a crisis situation. We have been going downhill, and this is like being in the gas chamber. The message today is `Please, do something.' If the legislature can't reach a compromise, the patient will be dead."
Franzone said he will be lobbying for a $50 million subsidy to tide over the industry even if slot machines are approved, "because even if they are passed, the industry won't feel their impact until 2010."
Raffetto said: "If the legislature cares about the industry, something will get done."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said: "Everybody understands that if they're going to be competitive, they need help from the legislature. We continue to debate this issue. ... There are numerous different ways to underwrite the purses depending on what consensus the governor can build."
Raffetto said if the Maryland Jockey Club ends up cutting racing to 130 days, he can't imagine many horsemen sticking around through four dark months.
He gets no argument from trainer Dale Capuano.
"The writing has been on the wall," Capuano said. "This is really no surprise. Without slots or something, we can't go on. When we don't have the money, we can't go on.
"I had a horse eligible for the $100,000 sprint on the turf Maryland Million Day," he said. "His name is Hero's Reward. He's Maryland-bred, Maryland Million eligible and owned by a guy who loves the Maryland Million. But I convinced him that we should go to Woodbine on Sunday, where the horse could run for $500,000. And the horse won."
Asked about Stronach's message of support in the face of racing realities in Maryland, Capuano said there is only so much anyone can do in the current climate.
"I know Mr. Stronach is a true sportsman," Capuano said. "It amazes me that the Preakness is still here. If I owned the tracks he owns, I'd be looking for an alternative.
"What happens in Maryland racing right now is up to the legislature. If nothing happens, the ones who can afford to leave won't stick around. If the cuts that are projected happen, it will make me think hard about what I'm going to do in 2008."