While trainers tried to concentrate on saddling their horses yesterday, the opening day of the Laurel Park fall meet, word spread quickly throughout the racetrack that track owner Magna Entertainment had announced plans to dramatically cut the number of live racing days in Maryland.
Suffering from heavy financial losses and a steady decline in the quality of racing at Laurel and Pimlico because of competition from tracks in neighboring states that are subsidized by revenue from slot machines, the Canadian-based racing company said it would reduce the number of live racing dates next year from 220 to 112. It also plans to close the Bowie Training Center and sell the property.
While the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown and the crown jewel in the Magna empire, would not be affected, live racing at Pimlico would be reduced to an 18-day spring meet.
Magna also would shutter the stabling areas at Laurel Park and Pimlico from May 31 to Sept. 23, forcing trainers to find homes for their horses elsewhere.
In a white paper titled the "Plan for Maryland Thoroughbred Racing -- 2006 and Beyond," Magna argued the cutbacks were the only way racing could survive in the state unless legislation allowed for the introduction of slot machines.
Maryland Jockey Club President Joe De Francis pointed out that tracks in Pennsylvania, beginning early next year, will install up to 61,000 slot machines, allowing them to create a racing purse structure that would dwarf the $193,877 given away each day in Maryland.
"It's not hypothetical or contingent on anything," De Francis said. "It's fact. It's going to happen, and it's going to hit Maryland like a locomotive."
Magna, a publicly traded company, lost $95.6 million in 2004. In July, the company said it would seek investment partners at its tracks, including Laurel Park and Pimlico, and sell off "non-strategic real estate, racetracks and other assets."
The company reported it generated earnings of $7.9 million on Preakness Day, but lost $3.8 million in Maryland the other 364 days.
With a curtailed live racing schedule and year-round simulcasting at its tracks and off-track betting parlors, Magna said it could raise purses for live racing to $303,571 next year. In addition to its new $23 million racing surfaces, this would raise the quality of racing in the state, the company projects.
The response was not favorable. Trainer Larry Murray, who won the opening day stakes race, said: "It's very scary, I think, to race 112 days. More and more people would leave. They'd have to leave, and some wouldn't come back. They'd get on the Delaware and Florida [racing] circuits and bypass Maryland. Five months out of the year away, you'd have to get two homes."
Representatives from Magna made the rounds with their proposal yesterday, meeting with legislative leaders, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), members of the Maryland Racing Commission and the horsemen's leadership.
The Maryland Racing Commission, which will rule on the plan, will hear Magna's formal proposal Tuesday at its monthly meeting at Laurel Park. Several commissioners expressed reservations and their approval is not ensured.
"I had a suspicion Magna wanted commission approval to cut back on some days of racing, but I didn't expect anything of this magnitude," commission chairman Tom McDonough said. "It's obviously going to have an enormous impact on horsemen. I'm hoping there is movement and we can get everybody to the table. The human toll is something you have to take into consideration."
"If the proposal I see is correct, I won't support the cut in live days," said commission member Terry Saxon, who declined to meet with Magna representatives. "I'm not sympathetic about closing down Bowie or losing live racing days."
Magna proposes racing at Laurel Park from Jan. 1 through April 15 followed by an 18-day meet at Pimlico that would end with the Preakness Stakes the third Saturday in May. Live racing would not resume in the state until Laurel reopened Nov. 3.
Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, questioned why Magna would build an expensive new turf course and then set a winter racing schedule.
"That's like telling me you just bought three first-class, non-refundable airplane tickets around the world and then say you're taking a boat," Hoffberger said.
Bowie-based Robbie Bailes, whose colt Scrappy T finished second in the Preakness this year, said he sympathized with Magna's plight, even though closing the training center would cause hardship to many in the industry.
"They've been taking it on the chin and have to do something to make money," Bailes said. "Their hands are tied without slots.
"But we have a lot of people in the racing office and on the backside who rely on year-round racing. It's tough. I can't say it is right or wrong. Do I wish it were different? Yeah."