Laurel Park

Laurel Park

Jim McCue

Still No Live Racing Schedule in Maryland

As of the afternoon of Dec. 21, Maryland had no live racing dates for 2011.

There still is no live racing schedule for 2011 in Maryland after a Dec. 21 meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission.

The commission met for four hours to discuss the situation even though an official application for 2011 racing dates wasn't on the agenda. Officials said no decision was reached on dates.

Further information on the next steps in the process, if any, wasn’t immediately available later in the afternoon of Dec. 21. Laurel, which ended its 2010 season Dec. 18, usually re-opens in early January.

The situation has far-reaching ramifications, not only for horsemen and the about 2,000 horses stabled there. Without live racing dates there can be no full-card simulcasts after Dec. 31, and the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), second leg of the Triple Crown, wouldn't be run in 2011.

There had been reports of a deal between the Maryland Jockey Club, horsemen, and breeders for a full 146-day schedule of live racing in the days leading up to the meeting. But a horsemen’s representative earlier Dec. 21 said there was no agreement because of conditions sought by the MJC.

The MJC is owned by MI Developments (51%) and Penn National Gaming Inc. (49%). In the wake of the rejection by the MRC of a proposed 47-day schedule for 2011, the operators offered to run 77 days of racing at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course from January through late spring to provide more time to work out a long-term plan, but horsemen continued to seek a full schedule for 2011.

"We're deeply disappointed by the commission's decision to reject the MJC's compromise plan, and find it hard to understand how they could determine it's in the best interest of racing to terminate all live racing in Maryland, including the Preakness," PNGI senior vice president of public affairs Eric Schippers said after the meeting.

Horsemen’s representatives said the MJC is seeking things they find unacceptable, including a shift in purse revenue to the operator; a pari-mutuel takeout increase; and closure of the Bowie Training Center, which is mandated to remain open by law.

Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, after the meeting said action must be taken within 48 hours to avoid a shutdown of racing. He said the problems stem from a dysfunctional partnership between MID and PNGI.

"It's so complicated," Foreman said. "We thought it was time to say enough is enough. Since (MID, formerly Magna Entertainment Corp.) took over it has been one disaster after another. We need to put a stop to this."

The MJC also would like to use capital improvement money to fund operations given the fact it currently doesn’t have a license for slots and can’t generate its own revenue. PNGI officials have said they’d like to pursue changes to the law that would allow a slots parlor at Laurel.

By law, purses and breed development earn 7% of slots revenue up to $100 million a year, while racetracks get 2.5% for capital improvements under a matching-funds program.

The slots revenue is split between Thoroughbred and Standardbred interests 80% and 20%, respectively, according to percentages for full-card simulcast revenue. But with no live racing dates, there would be no purses to pay; some Maryland lawmakers have called that situation unacceptable.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement following the MRC meeting.

“It's disappointing the parties involved could not reach an agreement," the governor said. "We are prepared to aggressively protect the state’s interests, as we did two years ago when presented with the threat of losing Maryland"s treasured Preakness Stakes. I would encourage the track owners, industry representatives, and horsemen and breeders to return to the table and reach an agreement that protects the jobs that depend on our rich history of racing in Maryland.

"We will continue to explore the legal options available to us."

Some in Maryland have called for the state to exercise eminent domain to take control of the racetracks operated by the MJC.

The MJC had devised a plan for 2011 based on the outcome of a Nov. 2 referendum on slots; the vote in Anne Arundel County didn’t go its way when residents approved zoning for slots at a nearby shopping mall. The MJC could have had slots at Laurel but it failed to submit a licensing fee with its application and thus was disqualified by a state commission.

The day after the county vote, MJC officials indicated it was possible—not definite—that Laurel wouldn’t host live racing next year. The initial plan called for 40 days of racing at Pimlico, closure of the Bowie Training Center, and use of Laurel for full-card simulcasts only.

The PNGI slots facility in northeastern Maryland is the only one open. Ocean Downs, a harness track on the Eastern Shore, is building a slots casino scheduled to open in January 2011. The other three are earmarked for the Arundel Mills Mall near Laurel; Baltimore; and a state park in western Maryland. No bids have been submitted for the latter project.