By John Scheinman
Stalled on the cusp of a 10-year deal that could be the foundation for revitalizing the Maryland Thoroughbred racing program, the state racing commission has issued a Nov. 30 deadline for track ownership and horsemen to reach a consensus.
The date is one day before the state must determine, by statutory law, whether to approve requested racing dates for Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course for 2013. While those dates, likely Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, encompass the entire year to account for simulcasting, commission member Mary Louise Preis said she would hesitate to grant live racing days without a deal in place.
During the commission's Nov. 20 meeting, chairman Bruce Quade said it is critical for the Maryland Jockey Club—the management arm of the Stronach Group—and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to sign a deal because Maryland racing and breeding stand poised for a renaissance with the coming increase in state-guaranteed money for the sport from alternative gaming.
Maryland voters passed Question 7, legalizing table games 24 hours a day at state casinos while creating a license for a potentially lucrative new casino in heavily populated Prince George's County, which is centrally located between Washington and Baltimore. Additionally, while an August special session of the state legislature lowered the percentage of slots revenue directed to racing from 7% to 6%, the eventual addition of the Prince George's casino site could have racing enjoy a large increase in total dollars.
"It seems like the General Assembly and governor have given us the opportunity for the perpetuation of growth; the opportunity is there not to limp along but flourish," Quade said at the monthly commission meeting at Laurel Park. "The money is there. If you look at the slot projections, we could be at $350,000 to $400,000 a day in purses. This 10-year deal is just too good to turn down."
Negotiations between the track and horsemen have gone on since January, and the two sides remain apart principally on stabling issues.
There are currently 1,725 stalls available to horsemen on the grounds of Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center, according to track president Tom Chuckas. Management would like to close Bowie, which costs the MJC approximately $2.4 million a year and build and replace stalls at Pimlico.
The training center is kept open by state statute.
Chuckas said there are 1,400 horses on the grounds at the two active facilities right now, and the MJC would guarantee a minimum of 1,600 stalls going ahead, building more as it becomes necessary.
The horsemen are concerned the MJC wants to close Bowie before making a commitment to complete the stalls at Pimlico. They also say they want a plan in place to account for stabling a sizable influx of new horsemen as the sport revitalizes.
"Our issue is how do we ensure there is adequate stabling," said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the MTHA. "The issue of stabling is always a difficult issue because it calls for the displacement of 900 horses [from Bowie]."
The horsemen, Foreman said, have agreed to the closure of Bowie, and even are willing to help pay for new stalls, but they want guarantees on a greater number of stalls and to see them constructed before the training center is shut.
Chuckas countered by saying, "We have more than enough stalls to support the horse population. We are more than happy to review it in the future based on need."
While the details of the proposals for a 10-year agreement are not public, Chuckas said at the meeting the MJC is prepared to run 146 days of live racing in 2013 with a guarantee of a minimum of 100 days of living racing the following nine years. There are provisions in the proposal for horsemen to be able to purchase additional days of live racing.
As part of the plan, the track would continue to receive $6 million for operations from the state in subsidies that were initially targeted for capital improvements, while the horsemen would continue to pay $4 million from the purse fund to the track, as they did in 2012.
Chuckas said the negotiations also include plans for a new revenue-sharing agreement with horsemen.
"I have no desire to drag this out until Christmas," Chuckas said. "We need to create a plan, an environment that benefits everyone, a win-win. The goal is to provide something that has been lacking-- long-term stability."
The next Maryland Racing Commission meeting is scheduled for Dec. 18, but a special meeting could be held to ratify the deal, Quade said.
It was unclear what the ramifications would be if the Nov. 30 deadline set by the commission is not met by the two sides.
"There needs to be a hard, fast decision on whether there is going to be an agreement," Quade said.
If not, "I don't think anyone knows the scenario," Foreman said. "We could be back to where we were before."
By John Scheinman