In Maryland, Concern Lingers Over Lack of Contract

by Sandra McKee

For the past four months, large crowds at Maryland Racing Commission meetings had become expected. But word travels fast, and with the commission's Jan. 10 agenda said to be free of controversy, few were in attendance to hear commission chairman John McDaniel say once more he and his fellow members remain "very concerned" about the lack of a racing agreement for 2006.

The fall was filled with tense debates and directives aimed at encouraging the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Horse Breeders Association, and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to reach an agreement on racing dates. Though the breeders in December accepted an MJC compromise proposal that offers 180 racing days in return for operational cost contributions, the Maryland THA did not.

"If we had been offered the same deal as the breeders, we would have accepted it in a heartbeat," Maryland THA executive secretary Wayne Wright said after his board rejected the offer that asked the horsemen to pay about $3 million more in retroactive fees than the breeders.

McDaniel, during the Jan. 10 meeting, noted the lack of an agreement and said the commission would be in touch with the horsemen and MJC soon in an effort to help the two sides reach a compromise. Before the meeting, Alan Foreman, the lawyer for the Maryland THA, said there is "no sense of urgency on either side" because everyone wants to concentrate on presenting a united plan to the Maryland legislature in another attempt to get slot machines at the state's racetracks.

But McDaniel said he feels pressure to get the deal done. "I want to be proactive on this issue," he said. "I'm concerned if it is not settled, we'll have to face it again (in June) when the now existing agreement expires."

Maryland is operating under a pre-existing agreement that requires the MJC to hold live races five days a week through Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day in June. Wright said the horsemen's group would deal with the issue "appropriately and in a timely fashion. We're continuing to focus on all the issues--days, expense contributions, and legislation. We're going to work in good faith."

Even though a contract hasn't been signed, the MJC issued a release that said Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course would offer 180 days of live racing this year. MJC president Joe De Francis and MJC chief operating office Lou Raffetto were both unavailable for comment because they were returning from their respective vacations.

"It's good to hear they are internally talking about 180 days," Wright said. "And I'm hoping (the MJC) and my board can reach an agreement on an expense contribution, but you have to be patient."

At the Jan. 10 meeting, the commission asked executive director Mike Hopkins to find out where the Maryland Thoroughbred signal is being sent and how much is being wagered on it. And, when asked if the commission would make a statement concerning its views on Senate Bill 58, which would allow Standardbred tracks to broadcast Thoroughbred simulcasts without compensation to Thoroughbred horsemen, McDaniel delayed a statement until Feb. 14.

"We'll have to take a position, but before we do, we'll have to understand it much better than we do now," McDaniel said.