Lack of Unanimity Costly to Maryland Racing Industry

The public got its first glance Wednesday, June 27, at what in-fighting has cost the Maryland racing industry.

The Maryland Jockey Club slashed 22 stakes races worth $1.7 million from its racing program the rest of the year at Pimlico and Laurel Park. The Maryland Racing Commission approved the drastic cuts at its monthly meeting in Timonium north of Baltimore.

"You know what they always say: 'It has to hit bottom before it can go up,' " said John Franzone, chairman of the commission. "Maybe this will be a wake-up call for everyone to work together for the benefit of the industry and the racing fan."

Eliminating the races, including nine stakes with purses of $100,000 each, was necessary because the state legislature refused in April to renew a $10 million grant to the racing industry. The money supplemented purses so that Maryland's Thoroughbred and harness tracks could compete for horses and bettors with tracks in surrounding states.

Hugely profitable slot machines subsidize purses at Delaware and West Virginia tracks. For four years Maryland had allocated taxpayers' money as a way of helping horse racing without having to legalize gambling on slots. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is a staunch opponent of slot machines.

The main reason for cutting off the grants, Maryland legislators said, was that the racing industry here was so fraught with dissention and mistrust that it had come to rely on state assistance and become incapable of helping itself.

Franzone, who was appointed by Glendening, has been outspoken in his criticism of the disparate segments -- track owners, trainers and horse owners and breeders -- for their inability to agree on positive changes for the sport. Franzone has clashed publicly with officials of the Maryland Jockey Club over what he perceives as foot-dragging on progressive initiatives.

"I see a real lack of vision here," said Franzone, whose term as chairman ends this weekend. "And there's no innocent party. There's a mutual distrust among the parties.

"I think the legislature saw that too. It said: 'These guys are fighting among themselves. They're not growing the business. They're not doing anything for themselves.' "

Of the $10 million grant, $6.2 million would have gone to aid the Thoroughbred segment and $3.8 million to the harness side. The total weight of the loss will begin to be felt Sunday, when last year's subsidy runs out.

The Maryland Jockey Club, the parent company of Pimlico and Laurel Park, had already cut purses of some non-stakes races. Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said that additional cuts in purses this year and stakes races next year will be required.

The MJC also gained approval from the commission to drop Sunday racing for nine consecutive Sundays beginning Sept. 9. It plans on running in the fall at Laurel Park, but even that is unclear. Large panes of glass in the grandstand have been cracking, and the MJC has hired a team of construction experts to determine the cause and the remedy. The matter is still under study.

Of the 22 stakes races eliminated for at least this year, six were Grade III's. They are the Anne Arundel Stakes, Laurel Dash, Laurel Futurity, Laurel Turf Cup, Martha Washington Stakes and Safely Kept Stakes. Each carried a purse of $100,000.

The Laurel Futurity stands high in history. First run in 1921, the race for 2-year-olds was won by four of racing's 11 Triple Crown winners: Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat and Affirmed.

"This not only impacts you locally, it also impacts you nationally," Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said of the stakes cuts. "It's a negative for all of us in the industry."

Capps attributed the continuing bickering within the industry to battles over turf and survival. Horse racing in Maryland has declined compared to other states in the region. Capps said the parties within the state continue to battle for their piece of a shrinking pie.

"We are dealing with some tough and complicated issues,' Capps said. "But I sense an increased urgency, an increased desire for a dialogue. It's almost as if the legislature was telling us: 'Heal yourself. Come back to us and tell us you've made peace on these issues, and then we'll help you.' "