LAUREL – After hearing impassioned pleas to “put it in the trash can,” the Maryland Racing Commission Tuesday delayed approval of Magna Entertainment Corporation’s plan to sharply cut back live racing in Maryland. They said the issue would be discussed again and decided on Oct 6.
Breeders, trainers and race track employees urged the committee for 90 minutes to explore alternatives ranging from outright dismissal of the Magna plan to a compromise. People spoke of livelihoods on the line and mismanagement of Maryland tracks by Magna. Company officials remained silent but for an introductory outline of the proposal and their reasoning for it.
Joe De Francis, of the family that owns 49 percent of Laurel and Pimlico, attributed the proposed cuts to a “decline in wagering” on live racing and future competition with slot machine gambling to be introduced in Pennsylvania in late 2006 or early 2007.
State officials, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller,(D., Prince Georges) see the Magna plan as a wake-up call for Maryland to legalize slots or possibly lose the Preakness and racing altogether. The company denies any intention of leaving Maryland, but officials did acknowledge in their proposal that General Assembly’s refusal to legalize slots pushed them to reconsider their options and propose the cuts in Maryland racing.
Under the Magna proposal delayed by the commission Tuesday, the number of live racing days at Pimlico would be cut to 18 from 60; the number of days at Laurel would be cut to 94 from 135, and the training track at Bowie would be closed.
De Francis said these adjustments would give Maryland racing “some fighting chance to minimize the negative impact” of ever-increasing purses for racing in other states. And while few horsemen and women disagreed changes should be made, even fewer agreed that those proposed were moving in the right direction.
“It’s not bad when they stick the knife in,” said long-time owner, breeder and trainer Phil Capuano before the meeting began. “But when they keep turning it, then it hurts.”
Capuano’s sons Dale and Gary are among the leading trainers in the state. But he said he isn’t worried about them. They can move away and be successful. Other people, he said, “can’t do anything else.”
“It will kill the industry if that’s what they want,” Capuano said before the meeting.
Willie Kee, a trainer at Pimlico, agreed. “We all need help. Maryland needs help,” he said. But, he warned, if this proposal goes through, “I will be out of business,” like many others in Maryland racing.
John H. Mosner Jr., a retired commission member, said the company was in trouble in its other racing venues outisde Maryland, citing figures from the company’s SEC report that showed declining income in other geographic areas.
Mosner noted the lack of air conditioning at Pimlico and what he said was a new rule limiting race track patrons who buy ice cream to one napkin per purchase.
“It’s like trying to empty the Chesapeake with a teaspoon,” he said. “They’re trying to cure this financial indigestion with Maalox and the Maalox is on the backs of these horsemen.”
But, Mosner said, “Something’s got to give on both sides.”
Terry H. Saxon, of the commission, talked bluntly to representatives from the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association after Alan Foreman, the group’s attorney, told the commission, “What you ought to do is put [the plan] in the trash can.”
“There’s more than enough blame to go around,” Saxon said. “Everybody’s pointing fingers now … it’s not going to do one bit of good.”
After Saxon’s assertion was echoed by various horsemen and commission members, the commission agreed unanimously to invite more discussion before making a decision on Oct. 6.