Maryland Trainers Forced Into Tough Spot
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Trainer Hamilton Smith

With Maryland racing in limbo for 2011, trainers based in the state could soon be faced with answering a very simple but important question if the unsettled situation isn't quickly resolved: Where will they race their horses?

When the Maryland Racing Commission Nov. 29 rejected a proposal by the Maryland Jockey Club for a greatly reduced number of 2011 racing dates, horsemen were faced with the very real possibility that there will be no racing in Maryland next year, or at least no racing to start the year at Laurel Park, which typically begins its winter meet the first week of January.

And while the headlines on the unsettled situation will focus on the possibility of having no Preakness Stakes  (gr. I) in May at Pimlico Race Course, Maryland-based trainers have far more pressing concerns. It's estimated about 1,500 racehorses make their home in Maryland.

The MRC is next scheduled to meet Dec. 21. Of the many issues at the forefront of the negotiations will be the number of dates for the upcoming year.

The MJC, now a joint venture between MI Developments and Penn National Gaming Inc., which own 51% and 49%, respectively, had floated a plan to close Laurel for live racing in 2011 and race 40 days at Pimlico. However, during the Nov. 29 MRC meeting, the MJC proposed racing 17 days at Laurel in January and 30 at Pimlico in the spring to give all parties time to work out a viable schedule moving forward.

Both of those plans are unacceptable to most horsemen in the state, including Hamilton Smith, who has been based in Maryland since 1976. In recent years, about 140 days of racing have been held at the two tracks.

“It’s a ridiculous proposal,” Smith said. "You can’t survive on 40-some days per year.”

Smith is among those trainers that doesn't know what he will do if there is no racing in Maryland come January.

“It’s a devastating situation,” Smith said. “We’re all in limbo right now, and it leaves us at a big disadvantage. There are no stalls left at Philly Park and Penn National. I don’t have the stock to go to New York. Some people are going to Tampa Bay or Gulfstream, but they have already allotted their stalls to trainers that have applied for them.

“My hope is that they will come to some sort of resolution; maybe set the dates for next year and work something out as the year goes on.”

Trainer Charles Assimakopoulos has seen just about everything related to Maryland racing in his more than 60 years in the industry, but he isn't hopeful given the current situation. For the first time in quite a while, he has made other plans for his winter racing.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen so we applied for 20 stalls at Tampa, just in case,” Assimakopoulos said. “The way things are today, you have to stay on your toes. I pray that they work something out, but I have a bad feeling.

“We close (Dec. 18 at Laurel) and there are no dates for next year. What can you do? It’s a shame because Laurel is one of the nicest places to race. The people here are great; they bend over backwards for you. Nobody knows what is going to happen.”

Trainer A. Ferris Allen has been preparing for a crisis in Maryland for more than a decade. When neighboring Mid-Atlantic states such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware aggressively moved forward with slot machine legislation at racetracks while Maryland lagged behind, Allen began to make other plans.

“We started adjusting ever since Maryland started to lose the slots battle about 10 to 12 years ago,” Allen said. “We opened two divisions; one in Maryland and one somewhere else. We go to Gulfstream in the winter now. I don’t want to give up my base here at Laurel. We’ll sit tight for the short term and see what happens. We’ll access some of the other tracks in the Mid-Atlantic if we have to, and just hope that the knuckleheads figure this out.

“I spent 12 years as vice president of the horsemen’s association in Maryland and have about 30 years in the business, and I have never seen a more confusing situation. I can’t figure out what anyone wants, and I don’t know how they would go about getting it. Hopefully they will finally put their heads together and sort this out.”

No matter what happens on or before Dec. 21, Allen said he doubts Laurel will “padlock the gates” and force horsemen to leave the grounds. The worst-case scenario is that trainers would have to temporarily ship their horses to neighboring tracks to race, but that is also of concern because owners might decide just to leave their horses in other states if there is no long-term resolution.

For example, if a Laurel-based trainer ships a horse to race at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, an owner might ultimately decide to leave it there with another trainer to avoid travel costs--and the chance there will be no racing at Laurel anyway.

“We’re starting to see that kind of situation already,” Allen said.

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