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Vote puts Preakness’ future in doubt

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LAUREL, Md. | The Maryland Racing Commission voted 8-0 on Monday to reject plans for a truncated thoroughbred racing meet in the state, throwing the future of the sport into doubt and jeopardizing the status of the Preakness Stakes.

At its monthly meeting at Laurel Park, the commission told representatives of MI Developments and Penn National Gaming, partners in operating the Maryland Jockey Club, that its plan for 17 days of live racing at Laurel in January followed by 30 live days in April and May was unacceptable.

Track owners said that once Anne Arundel County voters passed a referendum Election Day authorizing a shopping mall near Laurel to operate slot machines, operating live racing in Maryland at a continued financial loss was no longer an option.

"The model is broken; we can't continue losing money," said Mike Rogers, vice president of racing and gaming for MI Developments, before a hostile crowd of more than 250, mostly track workers and horsemen. "We want to sit down with the stakeholders in here and come up with a viable plan."

The commission members, however, rejected a two-page proposal track management submitted for 2011 racing dates. They chastised Steve Snider, the senior vice president of corporate development for Penn National Gaming, saying the only reason his company partnered with MI Developments earlier this year was for the possibility slots might be approved for Laurel Park.

"This is a non-starter," said John McDaniel, a member of the racing commission for 17 years. "They are not legitimate, in my opinion."

Live racing at Laurel Park is scheduled to conclude on Dec. 18 with simulcasting of out-of-state races continuing through the end of the year. The lack of an agreement for the future threatens racetrack employees, all off-track wagering in the state and the future of the Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

The commissioners said they understood the ramifications of their decision, but they did not believe the marked curtailing of live racing before them was in the best interest of Maryland racing. Barring cancellations in the next three weeks, the Maryland Jockey Club will have run 146 days of live racing in 2010.

"Rejecting this puts people out of work in the dead of winter," said commission chairman Louis Ulman. "You all have not showed any good faith. It's obvious your plan was to get slots and without that plan you're willing to let racing die."

Commission member Mary Louise Preis expressed concern that a rejection of the Maryland Jockey Club proposal could threaten the Preakness Stakes, which generated $79.2 million in wagering handle this year and has an estimated economic impact of between $40 million and $60 million for Baltimore and the state.

Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President Richard Hoffberger, however, said the Preakness does not help out everyday Maryland horsemen.

"That's not the purpose of what we're here for," Hoffberger said, "so an out-of-town company, one day a year, can make a lot of money."

When the meeting adjourned, the ownership officials, including Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas, declined to comment.

The track owners can file a petition for judicial review in Circuit Court to block the commission's decision, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Bruce Spizler, who advises the commission.

Beyond that, the future was unclear. Alan Foreman, counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, suggested the state seize the tracks and sell them to a willing buyer.

"There has been a lot of talk about eminent domain," Foreman said. "The more I hear what's coming out of the ownership, I'm not so sure we shouldn't go down that road."

Early in the meeting, the commission reported that a new slots casino in Perryville, operated by Penn National, already had generated $672,000 for the thoroughbred purse account and $337,000 for a capital improvement construction account for the tracks. Under the state's slot-machine law, 7 percent of all revenue from slots goes toward purses and breeder awards.

Longtime breeder Mike Pons, whose family has operated Country Life Farm in Bel Air since 1933, asked why the tracks couldn't continue to run live racing, with the influx of purse money, until a new operating plan is reached.

"Our purse account will get a 25, 30 percent pay raise for the first time in a long time," Pons said. "All we're missing is a stage, a place to play."

Pons pointed out that the breeders and horsemen in the state have the right to withhold the right to offer simulcasting on out-of-state races if an operating agreement is not in place.

"We have the power to blow the whole thing up," Pons said.

The next racing commission meeting is scheduled for Dec. 21.

 

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