Maryland Tracks Forced Into More Budget Cuts

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 8, 2008

BALTIMORE, Aug. 7 -- Richard Small sat on a bench Thursday morning outside his rundown barn at Pimlico, a barn his horses have occupied since 1971, and watched a tractor-trailer slowly rumble around the corner. The day before, the Maryland Jockey Club announced that because of deteriorating finances, it could no longer subsidize training and stabling at the Baltimore track. Horses and backstretch workers need to relocate to Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center by Aug. 31.

Horsemen and stable hands, particularly those living north of Baltimore, will suffer hardship because of the decision, forced in a time of rising gas prices to travel longer distances to work early each morning. Trainers who can't afford to make the transition might go out of business and their help would be out of work.

Small, 62, said the closing was long overdue.

"There's no other way," he said. "It's a competitive business. I support this. There's no other way, but they should have done it in the summer when they're not racing."

Following an eight-week break, live racing returns to Maryland on Friday at Laurel Park for a 10-day summer mini-meet that prefaces racing at the state fair at Timonium. Instead of celebrating with anticipation, the industry is in crisis.

Along with the closing of Pimlico for stabling and training, the track, in agreement with the leadership of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, last week trimmed 11 live racing days from the fall calendar and also canceled four major stakes races, including the $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, one of only three Grade I races -- along with the Preakness and Pimlico Special -- run in Maryland.

Once an elite horse racing state that dominated the mid-Atlantic, Maryland has been brought down by a competitive imbalance with tracks in neighboring states that grew powerful after slot machines were legalized and began fueling race purses. The Maryland industry hopes a slots referendum going before voters Nov. 4 will level the playing field, but for now it struggles.

Small, however, sees more to it. The MTHA for years has set as its ideal year-round racing in the state, but Small believes there is a glut of racing in the mid-Atlantic and trainers should not expect stall space to be subsidized when the tracks are out of season.

"The problem Maryland has it brings on itself," Small said. "No other state keeps their track open when they're not racing. No other racing jurisdiction in America. [Maryland tracks] should close when the summer tracks open. And the people at Bowie, they should make them . . . rent the stalls."

Small, whose family racing roots in Maryland trace back more than 100 years, said that when the Cohen family owned Pimlico in the 1950s and 1960s, "Five days after the meet ended, the track was closed, and we were on the road. Two weeks later, they turned the water off. Then the geniuses in the MTHA decided we're having year-round racing. They don't look at the bigger picture. The tracks have to look out for themselves."

Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said closing Pimlico will save the company $180,000 a month.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the MTHA, said that even though Magna Entertainment, which owns the tracks, would have preferred to close Bowie instead of Pimlico, the training center must remain operational by state law. Hoffberger said track management told him the only way Pimlico could remain open was if the horsemen contributed to its upkeep.

"It was a huge amount of money," he said. "The only source of cash the association has is the purse account. Every dollar spent is a reduction in purses."

During the 10-day meet, Laurel will offer twilight racing, beginning at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Saturday post time is 1:10 p.m.

"Twilight racing allows us to bring in a younger crowd," Chuckas said. "I would tell the racing fans as we sit here today it is a difficult and trying situation. Right now, for the mini meet, it's a solid product. I wish we could improve it more, but I still think it's solid."

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