by Sandra McKeeMaryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis presented a new proposal to horsemen and breeders the week of Dec. 12 and said he believes the three sides are near a deal for 2006 racing dates. Horsemen and breeders, however, said it's not a done deal."It's a relief to move the ball," De Francis said. "To continue the football analogy, we haven't scored the touchdown yet, but we're in the red zone."Representatives of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association told the Maryland Racing Commission Dec. 13 they would present the plan from Magna Entertainment Corp. to their respective boards the week of Dec. 19 in the hope of ending prolonged discussions over racing dates and track expense fees. The proposal provides for 180 days of racing, keeping barns at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, and the Bowie Training Center open, and asks the horsemen for substantial contributions to help cover operating costs.In response, the racing commission approved the MJC's request for 75 days of live racing and 30 simulcast-only days from Jan. 1-April 16 at Laurel. The track will conduct live racing on a Wednesday-to-Sunday schedule with a few exceptions.No matter what happens with the new proposal, the Laurel winter meet shouldn't be affected because it's covered under an already existing agreement."I, for one, am delighted by the cooperation," said commissioner John McDaniel, who had used what fellow commissioner John Franzone called his "bully pulpit" to urge all sides to work together to solve their differences in a timely manner.The commission's next meeting is set for Jan 10. Should the Maryland THA and the breed association approve the plan, the commission will vote on the overall racing schedule for 2006.The plan is vastly different from the one De Francis presented three months ago and described as necessary to help Maryland racing survive in the midst of other states in which the racing industry is supported by alternative forms of gambling. De Francis said that since MEC's initial proposal--112 days of live racing, the permanent closing of Bowie, and the closing of the barns for about four months at Laurel and Pimlico--it has become apparent Pennsylvania wouldn't get its racetrack slot machine program operating as quickly as expected."Make no mistake, when Pennsylvania gets its program operational, it will hit us with hurricane force," De Francis said. "But we are comfortable that the compromise we've proposed for 2006 will work for 2006."De Francis and Don Amos, chief operating officer for MEC, came up with the proposal after conversations with Maryland THA executive secretary Wayne Wright and counsel Alan Foreman, and Crickett Goodall, executive director of the MHBA, at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing the week of Dec. 5."I think the proposal evolved because everyone recognizes the importance of being willing to compromise for industry unity and cohesiveness at one of the most critical times in the history of Thoroughbred racing in Maryland," De Francis said.Officials said they hope the Maryland legislature looks favorably upon the industry, but Wright and Foreman cautioned the dates proposal isn't a done deal. Management's request for expense contributions remains troublesome to the horsemen, whose board previously voted not to pay the costs, and to the breeders, who have directed the funds formerly paid to the track into programs that have increased field size and breeders' bonuses.Maryland THA officials said they would present De Francis' proposal to their board but wouldn't make a recommendation. Goodall said there probably wouldn't be a statement of support when the MHBA board meets either, but the proposal wouldn't be presented if the leadership doesn't find it a reasonable approach."I have a sense it will pass both groups," she said. "The new plan addresses our concerns about days and stabling, but I'm sure there will be negotiations continuing until the last minute. We have to give the boards a chance to digest it. No one is holding anyone hostage. It just takes time--that's the way these things work."