Tough times and uncertainty mark the passing of one year and the beginning of another in Maryland racing. Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, calls 2003 "the toughest year we've had in the last decade." And the battle for relief in the form of slot machines has taken more unexpected twists and turns.De Francis says it will be a close call whether the MJC finishes the year in the black or the red. Eleven cancellations of live racing because of inclement weather -- and two partial cancellations -- turned what would have been a mediocre year into a "disastrous year," De Francis says."When it's not been snowing or blowing or raining or sleeting or hurricaning," he says, "even on normal days the general trend of business has been soft."After horsemen threatened to cut off simulcasting, the MJC agreed to keep the Pimlico stable open for the winter. MJC officials said closing it would have saved $600,000 to $700,000. De Francis later canceled the company Christmas party."I'd rather cancel the Christmas party than lay somebody off," De Francis says. "We're trying to look under every rock behind every tree for cost-savings."Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, says if the legislature doesn't provide money for purses during its upcoming session, then purses will have to be severely cut or racing days reduced. A modest purse cut of $500 to $1,000 per race takes effect after the new year.However, Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, says horsemen have no interest in cutting purses for non-stakes races or in reducing race days. He says they prefer slicing from the Pimlico stakes schedule this spring. The Pimlico Special (gr. I) may become a victim, depending on whether purse relief comes from Annapolis.Meanwhile, talks between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who favors slot machines, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who blocked the governor's slots bill a year ago, have broken down after an effort to reach a compromise on the issue. After saying he would not take the lead in the slots debate as the General Assembly prepares to convene in mid January, Ehrlich says now he plans to introduce a bill for racetracks slots. Rhetoric among political leaders has heated up, and observers expect a spirited, if not fierce, battle for slots in the upcoming session.