Deal reached on Md. horse racing in 2011

Wednesday's agreement will keep Laurel Park open for at least another year. The track has been losing millions of dollars in recent years.
Wednesday's agreement will keep Laurel Park open for at least another year. The track has been losing millions of dollars in recent years. (Michael S. Williamson)
By Hanah Cho
Thursday, December 23, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday brokered a last-minute deal that guarantees live racing next year at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and ensures the storied Preakness Stakes will continue.

Owners of the state's two major thoroughbred tracks and representatives for horse owners, breeders and trainers agreed to a framework that would allow the tracks to at least break even financially and run races on 146 days in 2011, the same number as in this year's schedule.

The deal came during a one-hour meeting attended by O'Malley (D) at the State House, less than 24 hours after stakeholders traded contentious words at a meeting Tuesday night of the Maryland Racing Commission, which rejected a proposed schedule for the second time in a month.

By Wednesday afternoon, the commission unanimously approved the agreement, which calls for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association to contribute $1.7 million and for the state to provide $3.5 million to $4 million to help pay for track operations. The state's contribution will be drawn from slot-machine revenue earmarked for track improvements.

Commissioner John McDaniel said of the agreement, "Obviously, it's much improved."

While the racing industry's future is secure for next year, the horsemen and track owners say hard work remains to ensure the long-term viability of a sport that has seen attendance and wagering decline for at least a decade, especially as neighboring states opened casinos years before Maryland.

The Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the tracks, has been hemorrhaging money for several years. Laurel Park has been losing $4 million to $7 million annually, and Pimlico's profit comes almost entirely from the Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown and the state's single largest sporting event. The Preakness, which contributes $40 million to the state economy, is scheduled for May 21.

"When you talk about the long-term plan for racing, there are a host of issues, particularly in the environment we are in now and the changes that have occurred in the past seven weeks," said Alan Foreman, attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

People involved in Maryland horse racing have bemoaned the fact that Laurel Park won't get slots. Seven weeks ago, voters approved a slots casino proposed for the Arundel Mills mall, devastating hopes of expanded gambling at the track. That prompted the Jockey Club's corporate owners to propose cutting next year's racing schedule to 47 days, which met with fierce resistance from the industry and was rejected by the racing commission.

U.S. casino operator Penn National Gaming, the minority owner of the Jockey Club, has vowed to continue pushing for a second slots license in Anne Arundel County, spokesman Eric Schippers said. That process would require a change to the state constitution.

Penn National entered into a joint venture with Canadian real estate company MI Developments to own and operate the Jockey Club with hopes of securing a slots license. By approving next year's racing schedule, the racing commission also gave final approval of Penn National's 49 percent ownership stake.

Separately on Wednesday, MI Developments announced that it is considering a restructuring that would transfer all of its racing assets, including the Jockey Club, to the firm's chairman and chief executive, Frank Stronach, a controversial figure in Maryland racing. In exchange, Stronach would give up control of the company.

- Baltimore Sun

© 2010 The Washington Post Company