It's About Slots

What expectation does a racetrack have of a trainer and "his" horses occupying "its" stalls?

That's easy. The horse will not just train in the morning, he will also run in the afternoon or evening.

Every horse in a race helps handle. Full fields help build pools. In today's world of simulcasting (meaning simulcast revenue), with so many choices of where to bet your money, field size is becoming increasingly crucial. Racing secretaries don't want stalls filled by horses that won't run.

The Maryland Jockey Club, owned by Magna and operator of Pimlico and Laurel (and the Bowie Training Center), recently settled a dispute with horsemen over the MJC's proposal to close Pimlico for training during the winter. The MJC's stance was it could save $600,000 to $700,000 by being closed for training from Nov. 29 to March 1. Horsemen were incensed they might have to move and threatened action over simulcast signals.

That was hitting the MJC where it really hurts. As is noted often, today more than 80% of bets are wagered off track. Cutting off a track's ability to simulcast is holding a sharp blade to the jugular. But this was a calculated risk for horsemen; the lost revenue would hurt them as well.

In negotiations, there is always give and take. To keep the stable area open, horsemen agreed to allow the MJC to issue "certain standards" regarding the allocation of stalls.

Management is particularly upset horses are shipping to run in West Virginia and elsewhere. In other words, the lure of pots fattened by slot machine revenue is the magnet pulling them aboard vans headed across state lines.

The MJC wants horses stabled in "its" stalls to run at "its" tracks. After all, the MJC does not charge rent for its stalls. However, horsemen want "their" horses to run where they can earn the most for "their" owners.

Now, horsemen stabled at Pimlico, Laurel, or Bowie are agreeing to run their horses more in Maryland rather than at out-of-state locations. If they don't comply, the MJC will certainly have a case for denying that trainer's stall application the following year.

A trainer that stables in Maryland is obviously interested in the betterment of Maryland racing. Now, management is saying, help us get stronger by committing to make more starts here.

So, by winning the concession of not having to move during the winter, a trainer may be forced to leave money on the table in the form of purse money at tracks in Delaware and West Virginia.

A trainer is also being asked to ensure his horses make a certain number of starts throughout the year at MJC tracks. During the negotiations, Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said he thought each stall should produce 11 races a year.

It's a good thing trainer Michael Dickinson has his own training facility. The man who won the recent Laurel Dash (gr. I) is not known for starting his horses 11 times a year.

In 2002, the average annual number of starters per race in the United States was 8.31. The average number of races per horse was 6.73. The MJC racing office's mission is to fill races. A trainer's is to win purses. But the big thing going on here is Maryland, like several other notable states, is in need of slots. The proliferation of slot machines throughout North America, Indian gaming, and riverboat and land-based casinos has tracks divided into two categories: those who have slots and those who want slots.

Maryland wants to compete on a level playing field (as does Kentucky, California, and Texas). Horsemen must back its efforts to get there.

A release regarding the settlement to keep Pimlico open for training stated: "The MTHA (Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association), MEC (Magna Entertainment Corp.), and MJC (Maryland Jockey Club) view the resolution of this controversy as an opportunity to move forward collectively with renewed commitment to focus on the future of Maryland horse racing."

That future may not depend on the number of starts per stall, but perhaps the number of slot machines per grandstand.

Dan Liebman is executive editor of The Blood-Horse.