After hearing testimony that a Magna Entertainment proposal to substantially cut the number of live racing days at Laurel Park and Pimlico, as well as close the tracks' stabling areas for nearly four months each summer, would be disastrous for the state's horsemen and breeders, the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday postponed a decision on approval of the plan until Oct. 6.
Inside a less-than full meeting room at Laurel Park, racetrack management formally asked the commission for permission to cut the number of live racing days next year from 220 to 112, keep horses out of the stable areas at Laurel Park and Pimlico from May 31 to Sept. 23, and close the Bowie Training Center to sell the property to developers.
Maryland Jockey Club President and CEO Joe De Francis told the seven commission members in attendance the plan would allow the tracks to save enough money to offer $303,571 in daily purses next year -- up from $193,877 -- allowing them to better compete with tracks backed by slot machines in neighboring West Virginia, Delaware and, beginning late next year, Pennsylvania.
"It will allow us to rationalize the way we do business in Maryland," De Francis said.
Magna, the Aurora, Ontario-based company that owns the tracks, lost $95.6 million last year and has been seeking ways to cut its debt.
Representatives of horsemen and breeders, however, pleaded with the commissioners not to approve the plan. Incentives to breed horses in Maryland will disappear if live racing is cut back because the racing program is designed to support state farms, said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
"If [owners] lose confidence and don't bring their mares here, those farms will dry up," said Jim Steele, vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and stallion manager at the Maryland Stallion Station. "When a breeding farm is lost, it's lost."
Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said Magna was "emboldened by what they see as a compliant racing commission that will rubber-stamp whatever they want to do."
The nine-member commission has undergone heavy turnover in the past year, with five new members appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Two of the seven members in attendance, both with harness racing backgrounds, walked out yesterday during testimony.
Track management argued that Magna had a strong commitment to Maryland racing, pointing out the company has invested $38 million in capital improvements since purchasing majority interest in the tracks in November 2002.
"There's not going to be continuing large checks funneling in from Canada to Maryland," De Francis said.
Former racing commission chairman Jack Mosner, however, said Magna simply is "suffering from a case of financial indigestion," pointing out company losses of $31 million for the six-month fiscal period ending in June 2005.
"They're down-streaming overhead from the parent company to here," he said.