The deal that would settle the 2006 racing schedule in Maryland remained elusive on the night of Dec. 21 when the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association refused to accept the latest proposal from Magna Entertainment Corp.
Magna, owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, offered a plan featuring 180 days of live racing, year-round stabling at Laurel, Pimlico and the Bowie Training Center and a request for substantial contributions to help cover Magna's track and simulcasting operating costs.
The plan was put together by Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis after talks with the executive secretary of the MTHA and executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. Its rejection left the racing community appearing anything but unified.
MTHA president Richard Hoffberger said his board accepted the 180 days, but wants to run locally during the summer months when the MJC would rather keep its doors closed because of increased competition from operations in surrounding states which are able to offer higher purses.
The MTHA also agreed to an expense contribution, but not the one proposed by the tracks.
"I don't think it is surprising that all these issues aren't resolved,'' said Hoffberger shortly after the two-hour meeting at Laurel Park. "The question is, is the glass half empty or half full. I see it as a step closer than we were at 6 a.m. "We did approve the continuation of simulcasting, which could have been a huge problem for the tracks, the breeders and the horsemen if not approved, and the board agreed to continue to talk," Hoffberger added. "The world isn't going to blow up on Jan 2 or 3 because we don't have a deal ... There are difficult decisions to be made by all parties. We're not in agreement, but we're agreeing to continue to talk and that is a good thing.''
Lou Raffetto, the MJC's chief operating officer, did not return calls.Maryland Racing Commission member John Franzone said he views the issue of reaching an agreement on racing dates for 2006 as a distraction.
"I don't think it's surprising,'' he said. "I think it's expected. It's like the UAW and GM, a constant state of small squabbles, but every morning they have to produce the cars.
"The horsemen have a deal to run five days a week through mid-June 2006. There is no burning [fire] to get this deal done. Even the racetrack seems to be taking a 'Let's see what happens' approach. What's important is to present a united business plan to the [Maryland] Legislature [ to get a slots bill passed]. And I'm very positive about that getting done. But, at best, these squabbles are over a one-year deal that after April could be totally different. Let's focus on a business plan for Magna.''
But Bill Boniface, president of the MHBA, said he believes what is going on now will impact what happens later in the legislature as well as on the Standardbred front, where the track operators want to take the Thoroughbred simulcasting signal without compensating the Thoroughbred industry.
He said his board accepted Magna's compromise deal Dec. 20 despite reservations and added, "I am disappointed they [MTHA} didn't come to a resolution.''
Boniface said he and Hoffberger had told De Francis "we felt we could do something with this plan. Richard has more obstacles to face than I did, but we've all got to think toward the future. There has to be give and take.''
Neither the MTHA nor the MHBA leadership liked the proposed deal and before their meetings said they would present the proposal to their boards without recommendation. But Boniface was able to lead his board to acceptance of the track's request for a 5.3% payment of revenues generated from live racing and simulcasting in 2006.
The breeders have not contributed to the operating costs of the tracks since an agreement to pay 6% expired in 2004. Since that time, the breeders have used that money to help increase race fields by adding to purse money and increasing bonuses for Maryland-bred horses. Boniface said the tracks gave the breeders credit for that and did not ask for a retroactive payment.
But Boniface said he has written a letter asking that their contributions to MJC expenses continue to be used to promote the advantage of racing Maryland breds. He said they also asked the MJC to make the Spring Festival of Racing Day a showcase for Maryland-breds and Maryland Million Day horses.
"There are a lot of obstacles and challenges ahead of us," Boniface said. ""Neither Richard nor I liked the deal being offered, but compromises have to be reached. This deal wasn't the greatest, but it was something to take before our boards and try to move forward. I did what I had to do and my board did a very good job. Even though several of our members had difficult issues, they felt it was important for the industry to move forward. We have a lot of other things to deal with. And now Richard has to work hard with his board to get it done ... It's ludicrous to think we can't get our ducks in order.''