Maryland Industry Told to Get Act Together

Exasperated by the state racing industry's continued bickering and failure to work together, the Maryland Racing Commission Oct. 29 ordered Thoroughbred and Standardbred factions to resolve conflicts in two weeks or face punitive action that could lead to the denial of racing dates.

Animosity among the disparate factions, long simmering in private, boiled over into public view at the commission's monthly meeting at Laurel Park. Toward the end of the contentious gathering, the commissioner Terry Saxon said it would be "absolute folly" to continue discussions as long as the parties are divided.

"You guys have got to get together to move this industry forward," said Lou Ulman, chairman of the commission. "I'm real unhappy with the direction I see things going. I blame that on everybody in the industry."

The urgency for resolving conflicts is a letter that Casper Taylor, speaker of the state house of representatives, sent in May to Ulman. It urged unity by Nov. 1. The implied threat, as seen by the commissioners and others in the industry, is that continued in-fighting would lead the state legislature to deny for the second year in a row a multi-million-dollar grant to bolster purses.

The fractures run deep within the industry in Maryland, but the issues that erupted before the commissioners involved discord between Thoroughbred and harness factions. They agreed last year to split revenue from in-state betting 80% to Thoroughbred and 20% to Standardbred.

The agreement was supposed to promote growth by joint marketing, construction of off-track-betting facilities, and creation of a telephone-betting system. It was also supposed to promote unity.

Revenue sharing has been a "dismal failure," said Tom Chuckas, general manager of Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in southern Maryland.

Chuckas said the agreement has cost his track $437,000 this year. He has cut and consolidated staff, reduced costs in other areas, slashed purses, and eliminated racing days. Chuckas received permission from the commission to race two nights instead of three in November and December.

On the other hand, Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis said ending the agreement would cost the Thoroughbred industry $7 million a year in proceeds from wagering in Maryland.

Another dispute is the so-called 6:15 law, a convoluted concept that gives the harness industry, which races at night, the right to shut down the Thoroughbred operation after 6:15 p.m. Chuckas said the harness side would give that up in return for the right to negotiate its own deals for Thoroughbred simulcasts, independent of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Alan Foreman, lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, described the dispute this way: "The fundamental barrier to growth in this business is that the two (sides) are forced into a marriage they no longer want to be in. They want a divorce."