LAUREL- The Maryland Racing Commission approved a tentative agreement on live racing Tuesday between horsemen and track owners, ending for at least a year the threat that racing could be sharply cut back in Maryland.
The agreement would schedule 180 live racing days — down from 198 — at Pimlico and Laurel, significantly more than the 112 days originally proposed by Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of the two tracks.
Maryland Racing Commission Chairman John P. McDaniel praised the “the spirit of cooperation” that led to the agreement.
Resolution of the dispute over racing days defers the discussion about the long-term fate of horse racing in Maryland to the next session of the General Assembly, when representatives of the track owners and horsemen will join the Ehrlich administration and others in pushing for legalized slot machine gambling. The track owners and horsemen say slots are needed to compete with tracks in neighboring states.
Tuesday’s brief meeting of the racing commission was a far cry from the commission’s last gathering, on Nov. 8, when its members expressed displeasure with the lack of progress made in negotiating a schedule and threatened to work out its own solution.
“I think you guys have fumbled the ball, dropped the ball,” Commissioner Terry H. Saxon had told representatives of the industry at the Nov. 8 meeting. The Commission gave the state’s track owners, horsemen and breeders until Dec. 1 to develop a plan of their own or accept a solution imposed by the commission.
The horsemen and track owners did not meet that deadline, but they were making enough progress so that the Commission decided not to press the issue until Tuesday’s meeting.
The horsemen and the track owners declined to make public the details of their agreement. Besides the cutback in the number of racing days, Magna initially had also proposed selling the Bowie training center, a demand they have now dropped.
The sticking point now may be an issue that the track owners only recently brought up: Magna says the horsemen owe the tracks for their share of costs in operating simulcast wagering at Laurel and Pimlico. Magna says it is due as much as $2.5 million.
The agreement is a “classic compromise,” said Richard J. Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Did we get everything we wanted? No. The horsemen would like 220 days of racing, but that’s not practical right now.”
Alan M. Foreman, general counsel for the horsemen, said the deal, while not perfect, is a start. “It really gets to the core of what we need to do.”
“When you negotiate a deal, neither side gets everything it wants,” Foreman said.
Joseph A. De Francis, whose family is part owner of the tracks with Magna, said he hopes the deal works out so “we can move on to other issues.”
This agreement only affects next year’s schedule, leaving issues surrounding the long-term viability of thoroughbred racing in the air. “We’re hopeful that the landscape will be very different next summer,” Hoffberger said. “What happens with slot machines is going to affect what we all do.” –