Magna Entertainment may be bleeding money -- having lost $26.9 million in its second quarter ending June 30 and $227.6 million since the start of 2003 -- but leaders in the Maryland racing industry don't see the company's recently announced plan to sell "nonstrategic real estate, racetracks and other assets" as including Pimlico and Laurel Park.
Indeed, with live thoroughbred racing in Maryland resuming today at Pimlico for the first time since June 12, there is a general belief that if Magna is going to turn things around, the Maryland tracks will be a big part of the picture.
"I would not -- as an observer who represents people who have a stake in this -- identify Laurel and Pimlico as nonessential assets," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "I would be shocked and amazed if our tracks were in that classification. I thought that was why they purchased them. With the money invested in the dirt and turf course [at Laurel Park], I would list these as cornerstones of their racing program."
The two-week run beginning today at Pimlico, scheduled at the request of the MTHA, is largely just a prelude to the main event -- the reopening of Laurel Park and its massive new turf course. Originally intended to be ready last September in time for the Maryland Million, the nearly $24 million reconstruction project ran into numerous delays. The rebuilt dirt track finally reopened Jan. 9, and horses will be allowed to begin training on the turf Aug. 24.
"I think everyone is looking forward to the fall Laurel meet, and that's an understatement," said Chief Operating Officer Lou Raffetto.
For whatever reason, turf races appear to fill far easier than those on dirt. For example, at the recently concluded meet at Colonial Downs, 118 dirt races averaged 6.9 starters, while 247 turf races averaged 9.6. Larger fields always attract more wagering dollars.
The new elevated Laurel turf course has been expanded in width from 75 to 142 feet, allowing management to run on five or six individual courses within the main body of the track. Consequently, the racing program will look markedly different than in the past, with up to five turf events on each card.
"I hope they hit the entry box," Raffetto said of the horsemen.
Also, unlike in the past, more races will be carded on the grass for horses in the mid-level claiming prices. "Because we can bounce from one turf course to another, we can run consecutive turf races," Raffetto said.
Laurel Park and Pimlico usually have little trouble filling two turf races per day, but a steady diet of them, however, may be a different story. Trainer Gary Capuano, for one, said many of the better racing stables in Maryland carry stock predominantly oriented toward running on dirt.
"I have two horses that run on turf out of around 30," Capuano said. Whether Maryland horsemen will support five turf races a day as management hopes "is the million-dollar question," he said. Trainers will "run horses for [a claiming price of] $15,000 on dirt, but when a turf allowance comes up, they put their horses in and one out of a hundred will jump up and win. They're not getting beat as far [as they had in a dirt race], but they're still not getting anything."
While Colonial Downs conducted its summer meet, Capuano raced his dirt horses at Charles Town in West Virginia and sometimes at Delaware Park. His brother, Dale Capuano, the leading trainer in Maryland seven of the past eight years, mostly rested his 75 horses in their stalls at Laurel Park. Normally a trainer who sends out runners in waves, Dale Capuano has saddled only 64 starters since the Pimlico meet ended June 12.
"I can't wait until Friday," he said. "We haven't run many horses, so they are fresh and ready to roll if we can get them in the right spots."
Racing at Pimlico will be conducted four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. Racing shifts to the State Fair meet at Timonium Aug. 26. Laurel Park, which opens Sept. 7, initially will race four days a week for the first four weeks of the meet before shifting to a Wednesday through Sunday schedule through the winter.
Racing Notes: In its recently concluded 40-day race meet, Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va., suffered drops in attendance and on-track handle, while experiencing a rise in overall wagering. An average of 2,028 fans attended the races each day at Colonial, down from 2,155 during the 34-day meet in 2004. Average on-track handle dipped from $197,577 to $170,125 this year. Overall, however, the track handled $43,312,745 in wagers, an average of $1,082,818. The track last year averaged $1,064,867. Jockey Horacio Karamanos won the Colonial Downs riding title with 66 victories. Ferris Allen won the training title with 24 wins.