- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

TIMONIUM, Md. Maryland racing may close in mid-June after a failed attempt yesterday to transfer a summer meeting to Virginia.

In a stinging rebuke to the Virginia Racing Commission's recent approval of moving its September thoroughbred meet to June as part of a regional circuit between the two states, the Maryland Racing Commission voted 6-2 to reject closing Laurel Park from June 11 to July 11.

Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis denied threatening horsemen with closing the state's three tracks for morning training if Maryland does not make way for the proposed Virginia meet. However, De Francis urged commissioners from both states to salvage the proposed Virginia meeting or Laurel may not race during June.

"I think the two commissions need to sit down together to resolve this issue," De Francis said. "It better happen before June, or otherwise it sounds like there won't be racing anywhere."

The commission's decision doesn't prevent Virginia from opening or Laurel from closing. However, either move would be virtually impossible because Laurel would be barred from lucrative simulcast revenues during that stretch. Virginia must now decide whether to race 25 days in September for the fifth straight year when Maryland tracks close that month or to risk a June confrontation.

Said Maryland commission chairman John Franzone: "Joe can close at any time, but what he can't do is simulcast [without commission approval], which would be finally disastrous."

Calling Virginia's preemptive move "the tail wagging the dog," several commissioners said the smaller racing industry shouldn't dictate Maryland's schedule. Indeed, many panel members were irked by the move during the four-hour hearing, which was the most contentious since a 1989 ruling allowing Arabian horses to race in Maryland.

"I'm not angry at Virginia, but [their decision] didn't go over very well," Franzone said. "They definitely need the cooperation of the Maryland horsemen. Virginia can run. We may be running, too. The onus comes back to the Virginia commission to decide if that's something they want to do."

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemens Association was the only opponent of the swapped meetings. Attorney Alan Foreman sympathized with Virginia officials seeking to avoid competing against NASCAR races in September but countered that the Baltimore Ravens would harm Maryland racing attendance during the same period.

"We've been asked to take back our worst month and give to Virginia better days," Foreman said. "[Virginia] is saying, 'You have no choice.' Somebody is setting the schedule for Maryland by outside forces."

Still, Foreman wasn't taking De Francis' possible closing as simple bluster.

"I have no clue as to what's going to happen," Foreman said. "We've heard some words to that affect. I hope it's not the case."

Ironically, it was Maryland's alliance that shaped the Virginia circuit in 1994. Colonial Downs, an isolated track midway between Richmond and Williamsburg, was largely chosen over four others in southern Virginia because of its agreement with the MJC to ensure large fields. An estimated 80 percent of Virginia races are won by Maryland horses.

That Virginia officials pledged $200,000 in daily purses during the 25-day meeting to remain consistent with Maryland levels seems jeopardized by the commission's rejection. One official estimated the fall meeting would offer only $120,000 about the same as last year, when it was soundly criticized by Maryland horsemen.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide