An Oct. 6 Metro article incorrectly said that the Pimlico horse racing track is in downtown Baltimore. Pimlico is in northwestern Baltimore. (Published 10/12/2005)
The owners of Maryland's two largest horse tracks will present the state's racing commission with revised plans today aimed at drastically scaling back the sport, which they characterized as a desperate attempt to stay financially viable without slot machines.
Magna Entertainment Corp. has adjusted its proposal to cut back live racing in the state, but only slightly, telling the commission in a letter yesterday that the most it can support is 129 days, down from the 196 racing days at Pimlico and Laurel Park last year.
The company also will continue to push for permission to sell key assets, including its 178-acre training facility in Bowie, which Magna hopes to sell to developers.
The Preakness Stakes, the second leg in racing's Triple Crown, would remain at Pimlico. But racing there would be cut from 60 days a year to 26, turning the historic downtown Baltimore site into little more than a large off-track betting parlor. Racing at the Laurel track would fall from 136 days to 103 days.
In an interview yesterday, minority track owner Joseph A. DeFrancis said Magna has simply run out of options because the state legislature has failed to give tracks permission to bolster revenue and purses with earnings from slot machines.
"In today's environment, there are only two business models that are working for racetracks in the United States," DeFrancis said.
One, he said, is to subsidize racing losses with revenues from slots -- as tracks have done in Delaware and West Virginia and will soon do in Pennsylvania. The other, he said, is to have truncated seasons punctuated by small "boutique meets."
That approach might help reduce overhead. But DeFrancis said it probably would do severe damage to the state's vast horse breeding and farming industry.
The proposal must be approved by the racing commission, which meets today. But because the plan has been revised, it is unclear whether the panel will put it to a vote.
And although the plan is being billed as a compromise, horse industry representatives said it remains, in their eyes, the product of "coldhearted calculations."
"Magna just sees numbers," said Gerard E. Evans, the Annapolis lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "They're just looking at the bottom line. But as they close and restructure racing, people lose their jobs. These are people who have worked at the racecourses for 15, 20, 30 years, some of them."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), a fierce advocate of slots, said yesterday that he remained hopeful that a plan would emerge that would satisfy Magna's financial interests and the interests of the horse industry.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that a compromise -- a middle ground -- can be achieved here," Ehrlich said.
As of late yesterday, that seemed unlikely.
DeFrancis said Magna is not merely posturing in order to pressure lawmakers to reconsider plans to put slots at the track after three years of rejection. He said the "boutique meet" approach, with just 26 days of live racing at Pimlico, is the company's only option.
Magna officials said that running fewer days of live racing would enable them to increase racing payouts or purses by 25 percent, beginning in January. That, they said, would enable the company to better compete for talent with tracks in neighboring states, where purses are bolstered by slot machine earnings.
Still, some in Annapolis wondered whether this is not part of a continued effort to pressure the legislature to reconsider slots.
"This is a very skillful plan by Magna," said W. Minor Carter, lobbyist for StopSlotsMd.com, a grass-roots anti-gambling group.
Evans said gambling must be part of the equation.
"All of this turmoil underscores the need to save Maryland racing with slots," he said.