Despite Commission's Urging, No Dates' Agreement in Maryland

By Sandra McKee
It appears another Maryland Racing Commission meeting will come and go Tuesday without an agreement between Magna Entertainment Corp, horsemen and breeders on a plan for the 2006 racing season in the state.

Though the commission directed the parties to resolve their differences over expense sharing and come to a resolution on racing dates for 2006 by this Tuesday's meeting or have the commission do it for them, the sides appear in little rush to find common ground.

And even the commission is backing off its promise to settle the issues.

"The clout we have is only punitive," said commissioner John Franzone. "We don't have to allow simulcasting. We don't have to allow a race meeting. But to do either of those things would be beating up an industry that is already in dire straits because of other states with slots (supporting their racing industries). We've tried to use the bully pulpit and we are making progress."

After one meeting, several conference calls and countless phone conversations, Franzone said the sides are within half of a percentage point (about $400,000 over two years) of a cost-sharing agreement that he said renders that issue "very minor".

But still there is no agreement on a new racing schedule. Instead, in separate conversations both Maryland Jockey Club chief operating officer Lou Raffetto and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association executive secretary Wayne Wright said each is willing to go into 2006 under the existing agreement that requires five days a week racing until the day after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in June.

"It's unsettling not to have this done," said Wright. "But we're making every effort. We'll get this approved and then continue to talk."

And Raffetto said, "We'll follow what the horsemen's contract calls for. That's what they want and I feel we have the horseflesh to maintain it through the winter time. And with racing five days, it allows the loss of a day or two for weather."

After months of turmoil and concern in the racing community over whether Maryland's racing industry would be decimated by attempts to save it, there now seems no urgency to settle the matter.

Since September the air has been filled with words from Magna Entertainment officials stressing the need to cut the schedule to raise purse money to higher levels so Maryland racing compete against slot-supported racing states.

But Magna withdrew its plan to cut Maryland's racing days from nearly 200 to 112 after the commission ruled Magna and the horsemen already had an agreement through the middle of June 2006 that required five days of racing per week until mid-June.

Directed by the commission to negotiate a new agreement on racing dates by the November meeting, the sides failed to agree when Magna introduced the expense sharing issue and included a request for retroactive payments.

"It was only when (Magna) introduced expense sharing that it didn't happen," said MTHA lawyer Alan Foreman.

The commission approved MJC's request for all the possible racing days in 2006, but, upset by the lack of an agreement, commissioners lectured all sides and told to them speed up the process.

Commission chairman John McDaniel and others said they would introduce their own proposal with an equitable cost sharing figure to settle the expense sharing issue if there was no agreement by Tuesday's meeting.

McDaniel, in business meetings all week, could not be reached. But commissioner Franzone said the commission's hands are almost tied when it comes to taking decisive action.

"Statutorily, we can't dictate payments," Franzone said. "It's beyond our legal capacity...The commission's powers are what they are. We can use the bully pulpit to push the negotiations. But we are limited. We can't just say 'let's do nothing' and seem hapless, but besides yelling and screaming there are no other avenues available."