By Katrina Altersitz and Mary Ellen Slayter
LAUREL – Mike Jeffra stands outside Laurel Park every racing day. “I’m sorry, don’t beat me up,” he jokes to the regulars who drive in as he takes their $5 for priority parking.
“This is a decent job,” he says. “I wouldn’t be at this gig for 27 years if it was bad.” But a few months ago, it seemed likely Jeffra’s job would fall victim to the downward spiral of Maryland racing.
Not far away in Montgomery County, Todd Greenstone says he would barely notice if live racing disappeared in Maryland. The owner of a 450-acre hay farm isn’t concerned because out of the 800 horses he feeds, only 10 to 15 of them are race horses.
Both Jeffra and Greenstone are among the 15,400 Marylanders who make their living in the racing industry and who would suffer if it disappeared, according to a study by the American Horse Council that has become central to the debate over live racing and, by extension, legalized slot machine gambling.
Yet, the two men are at opposite ends of a spectrum: Jeffra says he will be out of a job and unable to support his family if racing is further reduced in Maryland, while Greenstone readily acknowledges he is “not really interested in horse racing” and couldn’t care less about its fate.
The two typify the difficulty in pinning down the economic impact of racing on Maryland – a question likely to loom large in the coming session of the General Assembly as lawmakers will likely once again be asked to approve slots as the best way to save Maryland racing. Last year there were 17 racing-related bills proposed, seven of which dealt solely with slots.
In September, Magna Entertainment Corp. – owner of Laurel, Pimlico and Bowie racing and training facilities – shocked the state’s racing community when it proposed slashing live racing in Maryland almost in half. The plan was seen as a death knell for the state’s horse racing tradition, though the company said it was akin to cutting off a limb to save the body.
The Maryland Racing Commission twice deferred approving the plan while encouraging the company to work with Maryland’s horsemen to find a compromise, which now seems to be in the works. After months of discussion, Maryland racing is set through the Belmont Stakes in June, though other problems such as expense contributions plague the discussions and no one can guarantee the number of days past June, according to participants in the negotiations.
Chairman John McDaniel hopes a final decision is reached before the General Assembly begins Jan. 11, and says the racing commission will take a more proactive role in formulating legislative solutions.
“I think people generally get frustrated and I don’t want to have that atmosphere as we go into the legislative session,” he said. “We’re really going to try to work hard with the legislators and the governor to see if we can’t do something positive this year.”
Still, the shaky compromise between the two parties merely puts off what Commissioner John P. Franzone called the “cataclysmic effect” of yet another neighboring state – Pennsylvania this time – coming online with slots in the next year.
“It should serve as a reminder the racing industry is still bleeding,” said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who believes the answer to saving racing is slots. “The agreement that they came to was a positive compromise, but it does not stop the bleeding. The industry is leaving in droves across state lines…where they can compete on a level playing field, and they’re taking good jobs with them.”
Other political leaders are skeptical.
“My belief is when they always talk about how many jobs are in the racing industry, it’s in the horse breeding industry in general,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said.
According to the American Horse Council, the lobbying group for the horse industry, the total economic impact of the horse industry – racing and non-racing – has a direct economic impact of $1 billion on the state’s economy, and an indirect impact of some $1.6 billion. Racing is responsible for about half of that impact and the other half comes from recreational activities.
Busch is the person most often given credit or blame for blocking slot machine legislation in Maryland, and as the session nears its opening, the Ehrlich administration is again pointing the finger at Busch as the man toying with the fate of Maryland racing and its jobs.
“The fate of slots rests solely in the lap of House Speaker Mike Busch as it has for the past three years,” Fawell said. The governor’s spokesman ratcheted up the number of jobs at stake to 20,000, a figure substantially higher than conventional wisdom holds, and says those jobs “hang in the balance and will hang in the balance” until the fate of slots legislation is decided.
“It all depends on the Speaker of the House negotiating in good faith to save the 20,000 jobs,” he said.
Speaker Busch says that those racing jobs – whatever their number, and wherever their location – will not all leave at once, and if they do, people will find other means to survive.
“Nothing’s going to leave all at once,” he said. “People transition.”
According to the American Horse Council there are 15,400 people involved directly or indirectly in Maryland racing. Their figure is based on an economic impact study, conducted by Deloitte, the international consulting and accounting firm, and released in June. That study put the direct and indirect economic impact of racing at $826 million.
The Horse Council study, which took 321 completed surveys and weighted them to calculate totals, said the racing industry in Maryland generated 5,772 direct jobs – breeders, trainers, owners, and track employees like Jeffra – and 9,667 indirect jobs – tack, feed and hay producers like Greenstone.
An independent effort by Capital News Service to verify that number met with many challenges and constant referral back to the numbers of the Horse Council, a lobbying group.
“I wouldn’t even attempt that,” said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, laughing, when asked if he had any other numbers regarding racing jobs in Maryland. “We’ve pretty much relied on the American Horse Council and the people they work with.”
He provided a database showing 5,070 people licensed to work at Maryland’s thoroughbred tracks through the end of the year. Those numbers include trainers, owners, jockeys, veterinarians, track and backstretch employees, all of whom could hold licenses at multiple tracks.
Douglas Reed, director of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program and a Towson native who worked at Maryland tracks, described the racing industry as a pyramid, with a lot more people at the at the bottom than the top.
The stakeholders are plenty, Reed said, and include fans of the sport, the horse breeders, owners and trainers, the backstretch workers, and the various small businesses that provide services all along the way, such as horse dentists, veterinarians, and leather workers. They’ve all got their concerns and their interests are frequently at odds with each other, Reed said. “Who do you worry about the most?”
Men and women in the industry believe the people at the bottom of the pyramid are unseen and forgotten by lawmakers.
“We’re out there fighting for the jobs and the employees that we have,” said Billy Boniface, a leading breeder in the state. “There’s a huge base that a lot of people don’t get to see.”
Mary Elizabeth “Cricket” Goodall, of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the farm workers and other components serving the racing industry make up “a whole segment that it would be difficult” to quantify, but, she said, “When they start cutting (days), it exponentially hits other parts of the industry.”
In Laurel, Outback Leather’s fate would likely fall somewhere in the middle of Reed’s pyramid. Ron Sargent, owner of the tack and repair shop, gets roughly a third of his business from the race track. The rest comes from owners of recreational horses.
Sargent doesn’t think he’s likely to go out of business, even if racing were to completely disappear. But if the troubled sport falls back further, it’s “gonna put a crunch on us,” Sargent said.
The racers are “the quick money,” his bread and butter, Sargent said. “We can’t afford to be without them.”
Henry Holloway of The Mill in Bel Air provided Boniface’s Bonita Farm with $98,000 in feed for its race horses. If breeding farms like Bonita and Country Life, both in Harford County, were forced out of state, Holloway said he would move part of his business with them and fire 30 people – even though racing provides him with only one-third of his business.
“They’re letting a valuable industry that employs a lot of people…go down the tubes,” Holloway said. He’s already mapped out his contingency plan. “If the Maryland racing industry goes away, we’re going to move to Pennsylvania” and he has already scoped out a spot.