Md. horse racing commission takes 'status quo' approach for 2010

Same number of dates approved, but changes possible as slots money arrives

November 11, 2009|By Sandra McKee | sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Members of the Maryland Racing Commission on Tuesday approved the same number of live racing dates and purses for next year that they had in 2009 at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, but they said possible slots revenue could result in increased purses during the latter half of 2010.

Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Tom Chuckas and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association executive secretary Wayne Wright said they might be back before the commission next summer with changes.

"We're maintaining the status quo through the first six months of the year," Wright said after the commission's meeting Tuesday at Laurel Park. "We're racing four days a week with no cuts in stakes and no purse reductions. We expect to get through the first six months and at that point start to see the slot revenue trickle in. At that point we'll reassess." Wright said that anything past the spring meet - purses, specific days or stakes - had not been decided.

While it is unlikely slots revenue next year could arrive in time to change anything at Pimlico - where operations are expected to run from April 12 to a week or two after the Preakness - new revenue could mean improved purses at Laurel Park. The 135th Preakness, the second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, is scheduled for May 15.

"We're not out of the woods," Chuckas said. "But we haven't had to make a modification in the race dates, the purses or the stakes schedules for the first six months of 2010. We're planning to end the Pimlico meet a week or two after the Preakness, and then we'll look at the handle and any slots revenue and look at the situation then."

The state's tracks will host 150 racing dates this year. Purses averaged about $160,000 a day.

While there is uncertainty about the future of Maryland racing as Magna Entertainment Corp. proceeds through bankruptcy protection and the accompanying sale of the Maryland Jockey Club assets that include Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Preakness, there seems to be optimism among the horse racing community.

Wright said it was almost a miracle that Maryland racing has been able to maintain its schedule from last year. For much of the past five years, the horsemen's association has seen dates cut from its racing program in an effort to save the industry in the state..

"The way I look at it is I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it is no longer the train coming from the opposite direction," said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the racing commission. "I think the fact that we're not retracting dates is excellent."

Wright cautioned, "We're still in survival mode until the revenue starts to flow from the [slot] machines." But he said Maryland racing "can only get better."

Racing commission chairman John Franzone said Tuesday that Ocean Downs owner Bill Rickman Jr., who also owns slots-enhanced Delaware Park, is expected to have the state's first slots operation open on Memorial Day. Franzone added that the horsemen's association's status-quo approach is positive as well as a prudent.

"I think there is anticipation for slots revenue becoming available," Franzone said. "But I don't know what the actual mechanism is for the funds to come back. I don't think they wanted to start [the year] with the premise, 'Well, we're going to build our purses up' when they're not even sure what that amount of money is going to be. They can always come back in the second half of the year and adjust purses."

Besides the Ocean Downs operation, the slots facility in North East is expected to be running in late summer, still leaving three other sites to be determined.

Chuckas said he hopes the sport is beginning a positive turn with handles improving and slots money arriving. Just under 7 percent of the slots' take is designated for purses and breeding funds.

"But I don't want to paint a picture that everything is rosy," Chuckas said. "We don't know how much money is coming, and we don't know when."

But Wright added, the generating of any extra revenue is the beginning of something better.

"It's not going to be like opening the floodgates with revenue," he said. "But as slow as it may seem, we're still in a better position today than Kentucky [where slots legislation has not passed] and New York [where it passed nine years ago but is still not operational]. Who would have thought that? "

Laurel Park will conduct 58 days of live racing from Jan 1 through April 11, with an additional 42 days of simulcasting. Live racing will be held Wednesday through Saturday. Included on the live card will be the Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap, Feb. 13, and the Grade II General George Handicap, Feb. 15, the two biggest races of the winter stakes season. The Laurel Summer/Fall Meeting, Aug. 1-26, Aug. 31 and Sept. 7 through Dec. 31 were also set.

Pimlico has approval to operate from April 12 to July 31 but is expected to close shortly after the Preakness. Specific dates will be finalized early next year. The Timonium Fair Grounds was approved for its usual Aug. 27-Sept. 6 dates. And Fair Hill Races will run May 29 and three other dates to be determined.

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