No Frills at Laurel Pending Slots Money

The winter/spring meet at Laurel Park has been approved by Maryland regulators.

With revenue from slot machines probably a few years away, Thoroughbred racing in Maryland will continue in no-frills mode for the immediate future.

Laurel Park, currently open for live racing, will kick off the 2009 season Jan. 1 with a 59-day meet with racing Wednesdays through Saturdays. The 15-week meet ends April 11 and will be followed by racing at Pimlico Race Course, though that schedule hasn’t been released.

The winter/spring meet at Laurel features 17 stakes, including two grade II events: the Barbara Fritchie Handicap Feb. 14 and the General George Handicap Feb. 17. The two seven-furlong races traditionally have made up Laurel’s winter sprint festival.

Each race will carry a purse of $150,000, which represents a decrease from 2008. This year, each was worth $225,000 guaranteed, with another $75,000 from the Breeders’ Cup Stakes program.

A statewide referendum to authorize slots at five locations—one of which could be Laurel—passed Nov. 4. Before that vote, however, Maryland racing interests agreed on a fall meet at Laurel with no open stakes; among the races suspended for 2008 are the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (gr. I), the Safety Kept Stakes (gr. III), the Laurel Futurity, and the Selima Stakes.

The stakes schedule beyond the 2009 winter/spring meet remains up in the air.

“The passage of the slots referendum earlier this month certainly gives us renewed hope to compete with the other Mid-Atlantic states moving forward, but until that day comes, reality is that we will continue to struggle,” MJC  president and chief operating officer Tom Chuckas said in a statement after the Maryland Racing Commission approved the Laurel dates.

A sampling of purses at tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region shows Laurel lagging, but the situation could be much worse considering every other track gets gaming revenue--directly or indirectly--for purses.

From Sept. 1-Nov. 22, average daily purses were $329,970 at Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack, $264,685 at Meadowlands, $210,535 at Charles Town Races & Slots, $196,983 at Laurel, $191,969 at Delaware Park, and $132,980 at Hollywood Casino at Penn National, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems.

In a recent interview, Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and chief counsel for the Maryland THA, said horsemen and the MJC will strive to “put on a quality program with the dollars we’ve got. There really isn’t much you can do between now and April 1.”

The MJC, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., said it plans to apply for a slots license for Laurel. Anne Arundel County, where the track is located, is one of the five locations that will get gaming.

Slots operators most likely will pay licensing fees, and local approvals are necessary. That makes a start-up date for gaming anybody’s guess. Foreman said it’s unclear whether the industry would get some advance funds—from borrowing money or from the state—to support racing until slots begin operating.

“The tracks will have to sit down and figure out what the (racing) program will look like until we get up and running with slots,” he said

No matter where the slots casinos are located, horse racing and breeding will get up to $100 million a year for purses, and tracks will be eligible for capital improvement funds.