Swung shut

O, BY THE WAY

Closing of backstretch going forward

On Pimlico

August 20, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

The Maryland Racing Commission had to weigh human hardship against business urgency yesterday and, some argued, the greater good of Maryland's racing community as it considered whether to delay the closing of the Pimlico Race Course backstretch.

In a 4-3 vote, business urgency and the greater good won over human hardship.

The Maryland Jockey Club announced this month that it would close the Pimlico backstretch and relocate 447 horses stabled there are well as 111 industry workers - trainers, grooms, hot walkers - who live at Pimlico to Laurel Park and the Bowie training facility. And here's the rub: The move will be almost immediate; the Pimlico barns close Aug. 31.

Dozens of people about to be relocated attended yesterday's commission meeting at the Timonium Fairgrounds asking that it block or at least delay the move. A proposal that would have pushed back the relocation until at least Nov. 5 failed by one vote.

The reason for the November date was that it is the day after a scheduled statewide referendum on slot machines. There was a belief that if slots are approved, with the implied financial help that would bring to the struggling Maryland racing industry, some sort of interim financial assistance from the state could be negotiated to keep the Pimlico backstretch open permanently.

Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Tom Chuckas argued that the financial situation of the Magna Entertainment Corp. subsidiary is dire and that keeping open the backstretch, where horses are stabled for free, is costing his company $180,000 a month. If MJC/Magna were forced to eat those expenses any longer, the money would have had to be made up somewhere, such as in fewer racing dates.

And that, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Richard Hoffberger said, is where the greater good of the state's horse industry would be adversely affected. He estimated that if MJC had to absorb the financial loss from keeping the Pimlico backstretch open, as many as 12 race dates would be canceled this year to make up the money.

The appeals to keep Pimlico open were passionate.

"To close it down would be to cut off history," said Michael Grady, who works at the track. "You don't cut off history, you try to build on it. ... There's no reason other than money to do this. There has to be another way."

Some who wanted Pimlico to stay open or at least its closing delayed argued that some people would be forced to drive 100 to 150 miles a day to get to their horses and that those who call Pimlico home will be forced to live in uncomfortably close quarters at Laurel or Bowie, two to a room.

Racing commissioner David Clogg, who voted in favor of the delay, estimated a daily gasoline bill of more than $30 a day, assuming about a 150-mile round trip for some whose horses are relocated. He suggested that MJC start charging rent for stall space at its facilities as a remedy to help keep Pimlico open.

Commissioner William Gerweck, who voted against the delay, said he felt badly for those affected but that they represented a "small segment of the industry" and the commission has to represent the industry as a whole.

"The people who represent the track and the horsemen have discussed this," Gerweck said, "and I have to go with their decision."

The MJC has said it would pay for the relocation of horses and people. Chuckas said the Pimlico backstretch would be reopened about two weeks before the spring meet, during which the Preakness is held, and closed again about two weeks after the meet ends.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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