Efforts under way to try to salvage live horse racing in Md.

No racing schedule in place just five weeks before 2011 season

November 30, 2010|By Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun

State officials and the horse-racing industry vowed on Tuesday to try to salvage live thoroughbred racing in Maryland next year, though it remains unclear if the various stakeholders can come together to forge a viable plan.

With just five weeks before the 2011 horse-racing season begins, there is no schedule in place.

The industry was put in limbo on Monday when the state racing commission rejected a proposal to cut the racing season at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course by two-thirds. The decision also clouded the future of the Preakness Stakes — without a state-sanctioned schedule, industry insiders questioned whether the second leg of racing's Triple Crown could be held. The race is traditionally run on the third Saturday in May.

The tracks' owners could submit a new proposed racing schedule for approval at the next commission meeting later this month. But while officials with minority owner Penn National Gaming, the casino operator, said Tuesday they hope to strike a "constructive solution" to continue live racing at the tracks, majority owner MI Developments, a Canadian real estate company, has been mum.

"This is very complicated," said John Franzone, a longtime racing commission member. "It's a jigsaw puzzle with two thousand pieces."

Various plans for thoroughbred racing season have been floated in recent weeks. And at times, the owners and operators seemed at odds.

At one point, MI Developments Chairman Frank Stronach said he would not cut the racing schedule — a reversal of plans announced by the tracks' operator, the Maryland Jockey Club, days earlier. MI Developments and Penn National own the Jockey Club and the tracks through a joint venture.

Further complicating matters, some commission members as well as horse owners and breeders now contend Penn National does not appear to have standing to own the two tracks and apply for racing dates in Maryland.

In unanimously rejecting the truncated racing schedule at Laurel and Pimlico, the eight-member commission also rejected the joint venture between Penn National and MI Developments. Final approval of their partnership was contingent on the commission's endorsing a viable business plan for the Jockey Club.

"We did not approve Penn National's ownership, so I'm not sure if they should be playing a role at this point," commission Chairman Louis Ulman said Tuesday.

"It's a pretty strange scenario where you have an entity who doesn't want to race, who owns half of the assets, and doesn't have a license," said Richard Hoffberger, the president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, referring to Penn National. "That's a pretty big mess."

Those behind the horse-racing industry — the owners, trainers and breeders — have been at odds with the Jockey Club's owners in the past, but their relationship seems to have deteriorated.

MI Developments and Penn National executives contend they cannot continue to lose money at Laurel Park, estimated to be $4 million to $7 million annually. They proposed a 47-day racing schedule next year — 17 days at Laurel and 30 days around the Preakness at Pimlico — as a "stopgap" measure so they could work with the industry to devise a long-term plan for its operations. That was the plan the commission rejected.

Horsemen and breeders said such a short schedule would effectively kill the horse-racing industry. At Monday's racing commission meeting, they accused MI Developments of mismanagement and dysfunction and Penn National of only being interested in potential slot-machine revenue.

The infighting has drawn the attention of state officials — who have repeatedly pledged to save the Preakness, a Maryland tradition, if it came to that. The Preakness has been run since the late 1800s. Its estimated economic impact in Maryland: more than $40 million.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, reaffirmed Tuesday the governor's intention to work with "stakeholders until a resolution is found," though he declined to detail what options would be considered.

State Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, who represents communities surrounding the Pimlico track, said the state should consider seizing the tracks if the Preakness is jeopardized. In 2009, the General Assembly passed a law granting the state that eminent-domain authority in the wake of the bankruptcy of the Jockey Club's then owner, Magna Entertainment Corp.

"Even though we're in a tough budget situation, the Preakness is a revenue generator and showcases Baltimore to the world," Tarrant said. "It might cost a little bit up front, but the money we would generate over a series of years, we would get a nice return on investment."

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, who also represents the communities around the Baltimore track, said the future of the Jockey Club and the Preakness will be on the agenda at the Baltimore City delegation's meeting next week.

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