LAUREL – Joe Robison remembers Laurel Park the way it used to be — the lifeblood of a small town. He hawked papers there during World War II. Trains chugged from New York, full of people bound for the races at Laurel and ready to spend their time and money there. Horsemen moved their families to the thriving haven of Maryland racing.
Today, though, the 73-year-old lifelong resident of Laurel sees a different picture, and the focus is shifting away from racing.
“To me, as a kid growing up, [the park] was a part of Laurel,” Robison said. “I donÕt believe it affects us that much today.”
Tuesday’s meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, to discuss Magna Entertainment CorporationÕs proposal — to cut live racing days at the park by 40 days in order to increase purse sizes — may be the first step toward officially recognizing the change Laurel residents have been seeing for years.
After hearing from groups representing horse breeders and the thoroughbred racing association, as well as from individual horsemen and women, the commission deferred a decision on whether to accept the Magna plan until its October 6 meeting.
The delay will give many in Laurel more time to ponder the economic and emotional impact that a reduction in racing will have on their community.
Though Pimlico holds the spotlight for many because of the Preakness Stakes, Laurel is considered Magna’s “primary racing facility” according to an e-mail from Mike Gathagan, the vice president of communications for the corporation. Laurel employs people year round, is scheduled to hold 135 days of live racing in 2005 and currently houses 880 stables.
But what many don’t realize is that live racing at Laurel no longer brings in enough money to support all those workers, those races and those horses.
Angie Huffman, deputy director of the Racing Commission, said Magna and the De Francis family, which still owns 49 percent of Laurel and Pimlico, lost “significant money” operating Laurel Park.
The proposal by Magna says the company operated in the red 364 days out of 2004 and profited only on the day of Preakness. Huffman said with this proposal “they won’t continue to lose as much money.”
But at what cost to the horsemen, employees and the community of Laurel?
“When they start cutting, it exponentially hits other parts of the industry,” said Cricket Goodall of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
“From a breeder’s standpoint, less live racing days means less need for horses,” she said. “Basically you’re going to force people to go someplace else for business. … We’re having a hard enough time to get people to stay here anyway.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D., Prince Georges) fears trainers will also find more accommodating stables elsewhere. “Those owners are going to take the horses and move them out of state,” he said. “When they get comfortable . . . I donÕt think they come back to Maryland.”
And they leave behind those that make their livelihood as employees of Laurel Park.
“They have been a steady employer and a lot of people rely on them,” said Kristie Mills, the city administrator.
Huffman noted that the commission houses its licensing officials, three veterinarians, an investigator and more at Laurel. Robison knows people who work at maintaining the track itself. The fate of these men and women is suddenly uncertain.
Miller also notes, “Racing days won’t adversely affect the quality of life of Laurel, but they bring business to Laurel.”
If the races no longer bring in train-loads of people from out of state, as Robison recalls, patrons of the track do fill up at local gas stations and stop off at convenience stores, Miller said.
But others feel that Laurel and the surrounding areas — even Bowie, which will lose its 178-acre, 841-stall facility — are doing well enough without racing.
“I don’t know what immediate impact racing would have on the Laurel-Bowie area, if any,” said House Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel). Rather than focus on the loss of live racing at Laurel, he pointed to Anne Arundel County’s 9,000 jobs created last year and Laurel’s continued simulcasting of races from other tracks.
Though he acknowledges the obvious blow to people directly involved in the industry, he said, “I don’t think it has that great an impact on the average citizen.”
The Senate president and the House speaker, of course, do not see eye to eye on the issue. Miller is a key proponent of legalizing slot machine gambling as a means, among other things, of subsidizing the racing industry. Busch, a slots opponent, thinks other ways can be found to help racing.
For residents like Robison, though, the emotional attachment to Laurel Park remains strong. “Sentimentally, I’d hate to see it go,” he said. “I do believe it affected the economy of the city of Laurel and the state of Maryland and, if handled correctly, it can continue to do so.”