The Maryland Racing Commission approved a 2009 race schedule yesterday that includes as many dates through April as this year's slate. But officials warned that races could be dropped during the year if the industry's economic woes continue.
Total purses for stakes races will be $265,000 lower than last year for Laurel Park's 59-date winter calendar, which will run from Jan. 1 to April 13.
Though the industry foresees larger purses in the future because voters passed a slots plan this month, racing officials do not expect revenue injections from slots until 2010. They hope to maintain existing levels of racing dates and purses in the interim, though the Maryland Jockey Club won't request dates for the summer schedule at Pimlico Race Course and the fall session at Laurel until next year.
"We're doing as well as we can under the circumstances," said Louis Ulman, the commission member who chaired yesterday's meeting. "But I'm not pleased in general because we still had to cut the stakes purses. And we may still have to cut dates. It's a fluid process."
"We're still operating in crisis mode," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We've been able to maintain some semblance of a competitive schedule, but only January to April is rock solid. Like any problem, you have to adjust as it improves or gets worse. ... It seems our decline has leveled off, but you don't know."
The horsemen's association pulled purse funding from six major stakes races in August because of economic woes. The Jockey Club cut purses and race dates midyear in 2007. The nation's economic woes hurt racing revenues in all regions this year.
In that context, maintaining the status quo sounds pretty good. "That's about the best we can hope for right now," Wright said.
In other business yesterday, the commission heard a proposal for introducing "instant racing" at Rosecroft Raceway.
Instant racing allows patrons to go to video terminals and bet on past races using the same handicapping information that was available at the time those races were run. Once the bet is placed, the video terminal (which looks like a slot machine) shows the old broadcast of the race and pays on the bet.
Advocates argue that the machines, currently allowed in Arkansas and under consideration in Florida and New Hampshire, are not much different than the pari-mutuel betting that goes on at Maryland tracks now. The concept has been a financial success for Arkansas' Oaklawn Park.
Commission members said they found the concept interesting, but they want an opinion from the attorney general on its legality before discussing it as a policy issue. They are concerned that the machines might be considered a form of lottery under state law.