ANNAPOLIS- The legislative hearing was billed as an update on Maryland racing and a chance to focus on proposal to close the Bowie training center. Instead, racing industry representatives wasted little time in getting to the essence of the controversy over Maryland racing – slots.
At a House Ways and Means hearing Tuesday afternoon, representatives of the track owners and the state’s horsemen outlined the problems facing the industry, but fell short of offering any solutions. Instead, both groups pledged to work out a compromise by the Maryland Racing Commission’s next meeting, on Nov. 8.
Both sides told lawmakers that they are suffering because they cannot compete with tracks in neighboring states such as Delaware and West Virginia, where legalized slots help finance bigger racing purses. They say they are even more worried by the prospect of slots coming to Pennsylvania.
Magna Entertainment Corp., the majority owner of the state’s thoroughbred racing tracks, has said it wants to scale back racing next year from 200 to 129 days at Pimlico and Laurel, a move opposed by horse owners.
The Maryland Racing Commission refused to approve Magna’s plan earlier this month, saying that the company’s contract with the state requires it to get the agreement of the horse owners on any such cutbacks. The company’s 2002 contract with the state commits it to putting on five days of live racing a week; the proposal would cut that schedule back to four days a week.
Joe De Francis, president and chief executive officer of Maryland Jockey Club, the co-owner of the race tracks, told the lawmakers that the current business model for the industry in Maryland is “completely untenable.”
The entire racing industry has been undergoing radical changes, De Francis said, and the catalyst for that change has been the introduction of slot machines and video lottery terminals.
He described the proposals to cut back racing days and sell the Bowie facility as part of a necessary “short-term” solution to Maryland racing’s problems.
As he has done at other hearings on the subject, De Francis cited the sale of Churchill Downs’ Hollywood Park to a real estate developer for $260 million in September. Under the terms of the sale, if slots are not approved in California within two years, the track will be torn down, De Francis said.
Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, told the lawmakers that the Magna proposal would “decimate the racing industry in this state.”
But he too moved quickly to the subject of slots. “If we were to compete on a level playing field with each of these jurisdictions, if none of those jurisdictions had gaming . . . we’d crush them.”
Lawmakers asked few questions at the hearing. Before testimony began, Chairman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, made it clear that the legislature has no authority over the proposal to cut back racing and said the meeting was mainly intended to keep lawmakers informed on the issues in the racing industry. However, the General Assembly would have to approve the plan to close the Bowie training facility – and to legalize slots. –