Laurel Park

Laurel Park

Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club

Maryland Horsemen Fighting for Race Dates

Maryland horsemen are pushing to maintain a regular racing schedule in 2011.

With a Dec. 1 deadline on racing dates looming, Maryland horsemen are advocating a schedule similar to that of 2010 even though a shutdown of Laurel Park for live racing and training is on the table.

The Maryland Racing Commission will meet Nov. 29 to award dates. The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel, had devised a plan for 2011 based on the outcome of a Nov. 2 referendum on slot machines; the vote in Anne Arundel County didn’t go its way when residents approved zoning for slots at a nearby shopping mall.

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

The MJC is 51% owned by MI Developments and 49% owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the only slots parlor operating in Maryland and has lucrative gaming holdings in neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania. MID chairman Frank Stronach has said Laurel will race in 2011; partner PNGI claims it won’t because of prospective losses.

The situation has created uncertainty for horsemen, breeders, and the about 1,500 racehorses based in Maryland.

“This needs to be resolved before Nov. 29,” Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and counsel for the Maryland THA, said Nov. 19. “We’re at the mercy of two out-of-state powerhouses that can’t decide which way to go. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place trying to influence what happens.”

Laurel traditionally races from January through mid-April, August, and September through December. Foreman said having only a 40-day meet at Pimlico is a non-starter.

“Having only a 40-day meet is unacceptable,” Foreman said. “It will destroy racing in Maryland. We’re trying to keep the 2010 schedule in place for 2011 so we can all take a deep breath and figure out where we go from here.

“To dramatically cut back to 40 days and have everyone relocate is the worst of all worlds.”

The state law governing slots was designed to award one of five licenses to Laurel, but Magna Entertainment Corp.—now MID—failed to submit a license fee with its application, so it was disqualified. The MJC pursued various options to get the license, but they ended with the Nov. 2 vote.

Laurel could get slots if the law is amended; the MJC has said it may lobby for such action. In the meantime, Maryland racing is eligible for revenue from in-state slots parlors: 7% to purses and breed development and 2.5% to tracks for capital improvements.

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. The other three are earmarked for the Arundel Mills Mall near Laurel, Baltimore, and a state park in western Maryland.

In its first full month of operations, the Hollywood Casino at Perryville in October generated $797,628 for purses and $284,867 for racetrack improvements. In total, almost $1 million has been raised for purses, leading to questions of how the money will be spent if Laurel were to shut down.