Gov. Martin O’Malley brokered a deal in 2011 that kept the tracks afloat for the short term. The state diverted slot money earmarked for capital improvements and allowed the MJC to use those funds for day-to-day operations. The horsemen also subsidized the tracks in exchange for its agreement to conduct 146 days of racing during the year. This was just a temporary fix, and political leaders in Annapolis demanded that the MJC and the horsemen formulate a business plan to make the sport self-sustaining. The negotiations — involving management, horsemen and members of the state racing commission — have gone on for months, and still there is no plan.
Yet MJC President Tom Chuckas said last week: “I’m more optimistic than I have been for a long time.”
Everybody can see at Laurel this fall the enormous impact of slot revenue and its potential to reshape the Maryland horse industry. But everybody in the business also recognizes the threat that could spoil this dream. In several other states with slot subsidies, politicians are trying to claw back the money allotted to horse racing, asking why they should prop up a dying sport when those dollars could be directed to education or social services. Such sentiments have been heard, too, in Annapolis, where even legislators friendly to racing have been exasperated by the industry’s endless internal bickering. If the industry fails to come up with a credible plan for the future, politicians could yank back the subsidies.
Any plan has to address some intractable problems. Slot money is earmarked for purses, breeder awards and capital improvements, but none of it goes to the Maryland Jockey Club’s bottom line, so it is difficult to see how the MJC can profitably operate the tracks. Horsemen always want a maximum number of racing dates, but too much racing dilutes the product; the most successful tracks in America are ones that run short seasons. This issue has been a perpetual source of conflict between the two sides, but now they have to resolve it. There is potentially too much to lose if they fail.
For previous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/