Maryland Racing Commission Rejects Plan For Colonial Downs

Maryland Racing Commission Rejects Plan For Colonial Downs
Photo:
Joe DeFrancis, Maryland Jockey Club president and CEO who appeared before the Maryland Racing Commission on Wednesday.
In a tense meeting that exposed deep divisions within Maryland's racing community, the state racing commission on Wednesday rejected a plan for ceasing Thoroughbred racing for five weeks this summer so that horses can compete in Virginia.

The commission voted 6-2 against the proposal advanced by the Maryland Jockey Club and a task force representing segments of the racing industry in Maryland and Virginia. The plan called for Pimlico and Laurel Park to close for racing from June 10 to July 14 while Colonial Downs, the struggling track near Richmond, conducted a 25-day summer Thoroughbred meet.

A majority of the commissioners agreed with leaders of the Maryland horsemen's group that Colonial Downs should race in the fall, as it has the past three years. They said it was not in the best interest of Maryland racing for local tracks to close during the summer.

Now, with no plan in place on where to race after the current Pimlico meet closes June 9, the racing commissions of Maryland and Virginia will discuss the dilemma by conference call probably early next week, said John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland commission.

They will try to settle on non-conflicting schedules for the tracks linked by common management. The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel, also manages the Thoroughbred meet at Colonial Downs.

But settling this issue won't be easy.

Representatives of the Maryland-Virginia task force, in concert with the Virginia Racing Commission, are adamant that racing in Virginia should take place in the summer. Leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and a majority of the Maryland commissioners are equally adamant that it should take place in September.

"I wish there was a compromise," said Wayne Wright, executive director of the MTHA. "Unfortunately, we haven't found one yet."

Acrimony marked the meeting as long-standing frustrations and mistrust simmered.

The relationship between leaders of the MTHA and the Maryland Jockey Club has become so poisoned by suspicion that agreement on any issue appears nearly impossible. After the meeting Wright and Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, engaged in a heated discussion at the back of the room.

Some members of the racing commission have become so frustrated with owners of Pimlico and Laurel that constructive dialogue is sometimes elusive. Those commissioners are fed up with what they say is frequent foot-dragging by officials of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Answering a commissioner's pointed question about why this racing plan was being presented so late, De Francis said that he had hoped to negotiate a settlement with horsemen and avoid "this kind of acrimonious debate."

Franzone, the commission chairman, cut him off. "As usual," Franzone said, his tone sharp with sarcasm, "that went down in flames."

Even the horsemen could not present a united front.

Although the board of directors of the MTHA voted twice to oppose summer racing in Virginia, some trainers told commissioners they prefer it.

"They don't speak for all of us," the trainer Carlos Garcia said of the MTHA board. "They speak for just a small group."

Donald Barr, a trainer who serves on the board, testified passionately in favor of the MJC and task force plan. He served on the task force, believing that he was representing the MTHA, he said. Wright and Alan Foreman, the horsemen's lawyer, said that Barr was not authorized to represent the MTHA.

After the meeting, an angry Barr approached Franzone. "John," he said to the chairman, "the truth just doesn't count anymore."

Barr participated in the 29-member task force that supposedly represented all segments of racing in Maryland and Virginia. At the request of Maryland horsemen, the task force agreed to shorten Colonial Downs' thoroughbred meet and offer markedly higher purses of $200,000 per day.

Anne Poulson, a Virginian who heads the task force, said she hoped that after three dismal Thoroughbred meets in the fall, Colonial Downs could experiment with a meet in the summer.

"But politics and inaccurate representation of the process prevailed over the merits and the request," she said.

That the Virginia Racing Commission had already awarded dates to Colonial Downs for summer racing rankled some members of the Maryland commission. They did not like being in the position of appearing to follow their weaker racing neighbor.

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