Maryland Official Says 'Clock is Ticking' on Racing

by James Mosher

Maryland's Thoroughbred industry is likely to be downsized considerably beginning in 2008 unless racetracks are allowed more gambling options such as slot machines, a racetrack executive said Nov. 14.

"We can hold our own through 2007," said Lou Raffetto Jr., president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, the Magna Entertainment Corp. unit that runs Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. "But I can make no assurances about racing past that. The clock is ticking."

There will be about 20 fewer live racing dates next year as Maryland tracks try to cut expenses in the face of slower revenue growth. Industry leaders are near unanimous in endorsing casino-style gambling, especially slot machines, as a way to boost income for a multitude of things including keeping purses at levels competitive with neighboring states that supplement purses with slots money.

Raffetto made his remarks following the monthly meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission. The executive said he is optimistic closer cooperation between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries, which resulted in a 15-year revenue-sharing agreement signed earlier this year, will spill over into the political arena.

Some state legislators objected to slots proposals offered by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. Ehrlich's Nov. 7 election defeat at the hands of Baltimore City Mayor Martin O'Malley gives Democrats control of all three branches of state government, perhaps making slots an easier sell to lawmakers, some speculate.

"We're hopeful," Raffetto said. "The governor-elect understands that the industry is in trouble. There is a lot of support for us in Annapolis (the state capitol) at all levels."

Leaders of groups representing Thoroughbred breeders and owners expressed guarded optimism about slots legalization early next year. "Maybe now's the time, but a lot can happen," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

The leader of a task force that includes racing commission members as well as industry leaders believes a big project would catapult Maryland back into the big leagues of racing states. A new track in downtown Baltimore with a large hotel/casino attached could be a national draw, said John Franzone, the commissioner who is chairing the group known as "Keep It in Maryland."

"Does it make sense to just do what other states have already done?" Franzone said following the Nov. 14 meeting, referring to Delaware and West Virginia tracks that have had slots for nearly 10 years and are now considering adding card and other table games. "We need to do something to build the racing industry, not just have a bunch of slots parlors around."

Franzone said he doesn't expect the new track/hotel/casino idea to be part of the task force's recommendations, slated to given to racing commission chairman John McDaniel before the end of the year. Even if it was, Franzone doesn't envision the concept gathering enough political support.

"Maryland is a pretty conservative state when it comes to gambling," he said.

A major obstacle to slots legalization has been opposition from House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, who won re-election in his Annapolis-area district earlier this month. Busch has criticized industry leaders, particularly track managers, for not using current tools wisely and failing at marketing and innovation.

But innovation will likely be on display for three weeks following the May 19, 2007 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) card as Pimlico tries twilight racing for the first time, Raffetto said. The track hopes to start cards about 2 1/2 hours later than normal on Thursdays and Fridays, Raffetto said following the commission meeting.

An experiment in moving Pimlico's spring-meet post times to 3:30 p.m. and extending them into evening hours is a "strong possibility," Raffetto said. Management judged its first experiment with twilight racing at Laurel this summer a success. The special hours will be used at Laurel's summer stand next year, Raffetto said.

Meanwhile, business at off-track betting centers is slipping, Raffetto told racing commissioners.

"It's down a small percentage but not down as much as live on-track handle," he said, declining to give specific figures.

Wagering at the Cambridge Turf Club, an OTB owned by William Rickman Jr., is down about $150,000 compared with last year, said Peter Szymanski, general manager of Ocean Downs. Rickman, who didn't attend the commission meeting, also owns Ocean Downs, an Eastern Shore harness track.

Commissioners declined to approve an MJC plan to add several exotic wagers at Laurel and Pimlico. Bets such as "quad trifectas," which would have players picking as many as 12 horses, were criticized strongly by commissioner Alvin Akman. Though the commission approved such wagers in principle at its September meeting, the specifics didn't past muster.

Current computer and personnel systems aren't equipped to handle such complicated wagers, Akman said. He also envisioned the plan draining wagering pools to the detriment of small bettors.

"We don't have a lot of cashiers and we don't have a lot of new equipment," the commissioner said. "And that's just for the simple bets. This is one of the most ridiculous proposals we've heard."