Maryland, Virginia Agree on Summer Schedule

After months of rancor, the divergent segments of Maryland's racing industry have agreed to a summer schedule that includes a shift in dates for Colonial Downs.

Under the plan approved Wednesday by the Maryland Racing Commission, Thoroughbreds will cease racing in the state from July 8 to Aug. 7. During that period, Colonial Downs, the track in Virginia managed by the Maryland Jockey Club, will run its 25-day meet.

The Virginia Racing Commission had awarded a June to July meet at Colonial. The panel is said to have scheduled an emergency meeting for April 30 to revise the schedule.

The dates are a compromise between the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the operators of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. The sides had clashed so bitterly over Virginia and other issues that Maryland legislators criticized the industry for divisiveness.

Vincent Palumbo, a member of the racing commission, told racing leaders that the legislators' decision earlier this month not to grant $10 million in purse subsidies was "a message to your industry to stop a lot of this petty stuff."

The loss of that purse money made agreement on racing schedules imperative. Industry leaders must decide how to cope with the 15% drop in purses as purses at tracks in surrounding states continue to rise because of slot machines or government grants.

But first, Maryland's leaders had to agree on racing dates. They
"This isn't the ideal solution," said Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "It's a compromise. Everyone had to give a little."

Thoroughbreds will continue to race at Pimlico through July 7. Colonial Downs will operate from July 4 to Aug. 7. It will overlap with Pimlico two days: July 4 and July 7.

Laurel will open Aug. 8 and run until the Maryland State Fair at Timonium begins Aug. 25. What happens after Timonium's 10-day fair meet remains up in the air.

Horsemen and the MJC are discussing how to deal with the purse cuts. Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said one certainty is "a good solid cut of the stakes program. We've been running way too many stakes anyway." Some stakes will be reduced in value and some will be eliminated, Raffetto said.

Also, horsemen and management must decide on a fall and winter schedule, a purse structure, and a possible reduction in races. They promised commissioners they would present a plan at next month's commission meeting.

Representatives of the Virginia racing community expressed relief at finally being able to plan and promote their month-long meet. They had hoped to race in June and July, not July and August.

"It's fair to say this isn't the ideal time for us," said Anne Poulson, a Virginian who heads a task force of racing leaders from the two states. "But we needed to get some date certainty. We didn't have anymore time to fight amongst ourselves."

She said Virginians had hoped to open June 9 and receive the benefit of simulcast betting on that day's Belmont Stakes (gr. I). And she said Virginians had preferred racing earlier in the summer when it was cooler.
"But I do believe this is a good compromise," Poulson said, "and we will make the best of it."

This will be Colonial Downs' fifth season. It operated the first four in the fall with minimal success. Virginia's racing establishment wanted to try summer dates this year in hopes of drawing tourists and avoiding the competition of numerous fall events. Colonial Downs is about 20 miles east of Colonial Williamsburg.

Maryland horsemen supply about 75% of the horses that race at the colonial-style track. Joe De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the MJC, urged Maryland's racing commissioners to meet with their Virginia counterparts this fall to help devise a racing schedule for 2002 in an effort to avoid "the internal disarray and disharmony" that marred the process this year.