Industry set to rally for slots

Horseman calls it `last chance' to persuade state legislators

October 27, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

OCEANPORT, N.J. -- The Maryland Jockey Club has closed its doors for rallies in Annapolis before. But yesterday, when the MJC said it would close next Friday so its employees, horsemen and racing fans could attend a rally in support of slot machines, the situation seemed more desperate.

"We're trying to make sure we can save Maryland racing and keep the Preakness in Maryland," said MJC president and chief operating officer Lou Raffetto, who is at Monmouth Park for racing's showcase event, the Breeders' Cup, this weekend.

"All we know is the Preakness will run at Pimlico in 2008. But we don't know what we will do with our racing dates after Laurel's winter meet, let alone what will happen to the Preakness beyond next May."

The MJC will close Laurel Park and Pimlico on Friday and not hold live or simulcast races. It also will close both tracks and the Bowie Training Center to trainers by 8:30 a.m. so everyone who wants to can board buses at the three locations for the trip to Annapolis. Race fans also are invited to come to the tracks and ride the buses to the State House rally.

The rally, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., is designed to coincide with legislative hearings at 11 a.m. that day on slot machine proposals.

In Laurel's barn area, trainer Tim Hooper has a different perspective on this rally than he has had on previous ones.

"It's a good idea," he said. "I haven't made these trips before, but I'm going this time. I think we're close to getting slots, and with the news about the cut of our winter racing days [earlier this week], it's an obvious sign something has to be done."

Raffetto told the Maryland Racing Commission on Tuesday that the industry is in crisis, and he requested and received a cut of 15 days from the winter racing schedule at Laurel Park beginning in January.

Yesterday, Raffetto said he hopes the rally will send a message to the legislature "of what a critical point we've reached."

In Baltimore, Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said he "would urge everyone directly or indirectly connected or whose livelihood is affected" to go to Annapolis

"It may be our last, best chance to impress upon our legislature the importance of the issue," Wright said. "It's more important to go than to work [that day]. Going to 100-some days of racing next year tells you we're in direr circumstances here. This should not be taken lightly."

Raffetto said no one knows what will happen next in the Maryland racing industry.

"We don't know if we'll see a slots bill passed or whether it might go to referendum," he said. "We know polls show that if a referendum was held next week, it would pass. But we also know if that vote isn't taken until November 2008, surrounding states - West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania - will spend millions to defeat the referendum. Those states want to make sure the hundreds of millions of Maryland dollars that flow into their states for education and other public services continue to flow into their coffers."

Hooper said the point of slots is not just to help horse racing but the whole state.

"It just seems the politicians are, well, I don't want to say babies, but there is so much in-fighting that they're impacting the whole state," he said. "You look at Pennsylvania - let alone Charles Town - and all the money being generated for their schools and roads. It's unbelievable."

Over the past year, the Maryland Racing Commission has approved cuts to Maryland's live racing days, stakes program and purses. Earlier this week, the commission was told that more stallions are leaving the state.

And last week, one of Maryland's most successful breeding farms, the Northview Stallion Station, announced it will be expanding into Pennsylvania.

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