Not serving stakes: 6 big races dropped

Funding to be eliminated

Pimlico barns to close

A sad state

August 06, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Reporter

Further diminishing an already struggling industry, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association plans to discontinue the financing of six stakes races this fall, virtually eliminating some of the state's most prestigious races, The Sun has learned.

Additionally, the stricken industry is expected to hear today that the Maryland Jockey Club will close the Pimlico Race Course barn area until the spring meet, evicting all horses, horsemen and backstretch workers from the racetrack.

The six affected stakes - the De Francis Dash, the Safely Kept, the Laurel Futurity, the John Schapiro, the Sonny Hine and the Selima - have combined purses of $850,000 and attract some of the largest crowds and best horses of the fall meet at Laurel Park. The De Francis Dash is one of just three Grade I races in Maryland (the others are the Preakness and Pimlico Special), and the Laurel Futurity has drawn the likes of Secretariat, Affirmed and Barbaro.

"We're not financing them," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the horsemen's association. "If the MJC wants to find sponsorship or Joe De Francis wants to fund the race that honors his father [Frank De Francis], then they'll run. We don't have the money to pay Magna to keep the barns open, and we don't have the money to pay for the stakes purses. Even with all the cuts, we'll still be from $500,000 to $1 million in the red. The purse money we have will be used to fund the overnight purses for live racing."

The cuts could flow into next year, Wright said, when it would "depend on the legislature" and the outcome of the Nov. 4 slots referendum.

"Our program is in the tank," he said. "We're just hanging on."

Richard Hoffberger, president of the MTHA, and John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, confirmed the barn closings. MJC president and chief operating officer Tom Chuckas is expected to announce the closings today.

Said Hoffberger: "[The MJC] came to us and said, 'We're going to [close the barns] unless you pay us to keep it open.' It's like someone walking into a bank with a pistol and [you] give [him] the key and say, 'Here, you can have everything that's in the vault.' There is nothing in the vault.

"What are we going to use for money? We'd have to use purse money, and if we did that, we'd have to cut the purses and no one would run in our races, so what good would it do to have stabling with no races?"

In the past, the MTHA has paid $1.5 million to $2 million annually to the MJC as an expense contribution with the understanding the Pimlico barns would remain open. Wright said the organization could not pay the fee this year because of the lack of purse money.

Franzone said the barn closings will have to be approved by the commission, and he anticipates the MJC and Magna Entertainment Inc., which owns the tracks, to ask for approval at the next commission meeting, Aug. 19. He estimated that keeping the Pimlico barns open when there is no live racing at the track costs Magna about $1 million per year.

"I don't want to influence the vote of the commission," Franzone said, "but the MJC and Magna and the Thoroughbred Horsemen are doing horribly. This is probably something that has to give."

MJC racing secretary Georganne Hale, the only MJC official who could be reached yesterday, said: "I have a spot for everybody," referring to those who must leave the Pimlico barns. She would not comment on the expected announcement or provide statistics concerning the track, including how many horses, trainers or backstretch workers will be affected. Pimlico has 90 on-site rooms for personnel, and Franzone estimated the number of backstretch workers could be as many as 200. Wright said there are about 400 horses on the grounds.

"I'm not a gloomy guy," said trainer Dickie Small, who has 40 horses at Pimlico. "But this could be the death knell. People will leave and not come back. They can go to Pennsylvania and run for bigger purses in easier races. It's unfortunate for the state."

And there is concern among horsemen, who have heard Pimlico's spring meet could be curtailed drastically, cut back to as few as 10 days leading up to the Preakness.

But Franzone said: "I have not heard anything about cutting back the dates from the MJC or the horsemen. They have to come forward with the date request in November, but I do not believe anyone will make a formal presentation until after the Nov. 4 [slots referendum] vote.

"My hope and desire would be that the referendum passes and the legislature would give us an advance on the revenue to carry us to 2010."

Trainer Tim Hooper, like other trainers, has heard rumors about closing Pimlico's barns for more than six years. But this time, Hooper said, it has been different.

"When you heard these rumors in the past, they wouldn't last long," he said. "You'd hear it, and then you'd hear from someone official that it wasn't going to happen. The last time was two years ago, and [then-MJC president and chief operating officer] Lou Raffetto let us know it wasn't happening. But this time, there's been no denials."

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