Castigating the management of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course for everything from construction delays to security cutbacks to apathetic customer service, the Maryland Racing Commission delivered a stern message Sept. 14 to the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp.
"The truth is," commissioner John McDaniel said, "the commission has no more tolerance. Period."
In a meeting at Pimlico, the commissioners addressed their grievances to Jim Gagliano, who has been in charge of racing operations at the two tracks since July 1. An executive with MEC since February 2002, Gagliano worked previously at Philadelphia Park, Monmouth Park, and Meadowlands.
Gagliano told commissioners that rebuilding of the racing surfaces at Laurel had fallen behind schedule because of wet weather, and that racing couldn't resume there until late October at the earliest--on the dirt track only. Though the primary goal of the $16-million project was building a new turf course, it has been postponed until next year.
"It's a terrible situation for a lot of us, difficult especially for the horsemen," Gagliano said. "It's our responsibility. We offer apologies to everyone for the delay."
In the meantime, racing will continue at Pimlico, and horses and horsemen will continue their shuffle. Since June, when work began at Laurel, about 500 horses have been stabled at Timonium. Most will have to leave by Sept. 27 to make room for the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic yearling auction Oct. 4-5.
About 160 racehorses can move into other stalls at Timonium near the show ring, but those stalls lack even basic amenities such as hot water. About 320 temporary stalls have been erected under blue and white tents at Pimlico. After the auction, horses might have to move back to Timonium.
Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the temporary stalls were a safety hazard. He said what most horsemen and some commissioners had predicted would happen--that the Laurel surfaces could not be rebuilt this summer, as MEC executives had promised--has happened.
"Now it's not a problem, it's a disaster," Wright said. "It's a terrible, terrible occurrence."
Gagliano said the goal was to reopen Laurel for training about Oct. 18 and to resume racing there Oct. 28. Commissioners persuaded him to push back that latter date to Nov. 4 to avoid "another public relations knock," as commissioner Terry Saxon put it.
In reference to past promises from MJC officials, Saxon told Gagliano: "Your credibility on performance is not very good to begin with."
Replied Gagliano: "I'm sorry to continue that legacy. We're disappointed, too."
Gagliano said the company would pay all expenses for moving horses. And if trainers want to stable horses at Laurel while work continues, he said, then track owners will pay for a shuttle to Bowie Training Center for morning training.
Just before the meeting ended, Richard Lippman, a mutuel clerk at Rosecroft Raceway and Laurel, addressed the commissioners about the dismal state of Maryland racing, including poor customer service and inadequate security.
John Franzone, a commissioner, had earlier criticized MJC management for cutbacks in security. He said a backstretch worker at Laurel had recently been beaten nearly to death, and that a fight had broken out on the backstretch at Pimlico. On Sept. 20, a worker at Pimlico was robbed at knifepoint, he said.
In response to Lippman's presentation, Franzone and fellow commissioner Alvin Akman challenged Gagliano to reverse the long-held perception of track patrons.
"To the average person," Akman said, "the bottom line is: Nobody cares."