- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Magna Entertainment Corp. plans to shut down horse tracks in Maryland for five months next year, eliminating most of the racing at historic Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

The Canadian company yesterday announced a major reduction in racing dates because a deadlocked legislature has not approved the use of slot machines that Magna says it needs to compete with tracks in Delaware, West Virginia and, soon, Pennsylvania.

It will be the first extensive track closure in the state since the 1950s.

When the Maryland Racing Commission meets Wednesday, Magna will request 112 live racing dates in 2006, down from 200 this year and nearly 300 in the 1980s.

Racing would be held at Pimlico from April 21 to May 21, a boutique meet built around the annual Preakness Stakes in mid-May.

Laurel Park would operate Jan. 1 to March 15 and Nov. 3 to Dec. 30. Racing would take place four days each week, down from five. However, the tracks still would accept simulcast wagering on out-of-state races every day. Magna also will seek to close the Bowie Training Center.

By holding races on fewer dates, Magna hopes to be able to increase its purses to levels competitive with those at tracks in neighboring states.

The reduction in race dates also would slash operating costs. Magna earns $7.9 million each year from the Preakness but loses $3.8 million on Maryland racing the rest of the year. However, track operators have long kept year-round racing to bolster the industry’s overall economy.

A statement from Magna said the cutbacks were related directly to the racing industry’s failure over the past nine years to get slots legalized in the state. Tracks in West Virginia and Delaware have prospered with the addition of slots. Tracks at Pennsylvania will add slots next year.

“For the last few years, Maryland racing has been on the slow road to, at best, mediocrity and, at worst, to oblivion,” said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Magna’s tracks in the state. “Once the Pennsylvania tracks commence their [slot] operations in the near future, the speed at which we are traveling down this road of decline in Maryland will be dramatically accelerated.

“We cannot simply stand by and wait until this oncoming locomotive runs over us.”

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., both slots advocates, blamed the failed bid for gambling on House Speaker Michael E. Busch. The House passed a slots bill last spring that Mr. Miller found unacceptable, and the bill never cleared a Senate committee. Mr. Miller said Mr. Busch should agree to a special session to approve slots, a move that would let Magna reverse its decision to reduce racing dates.

“We need some action. We need some action quickly,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat.

Mr. Busch said he would wait for feedback from legislators before considering a special session. However, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, blamed Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, for harming the state’s racing industry.

“The failure of the Maryland General Assembly to pass a slots bill is clearly responsible for this announcement,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Let’s get it done. This is 20,000 jobs for the state of Maryland. The impact on farmers is profound.”

The reduction in race dates would have a direct impact on track employees, but the effects would ripple through the industry to breeders, farriers and grain salesmen. Mike Pons, a Bel Air breeder and the vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association, said Magna’s decision was a “real hard punch below the belt.”

“It really is going to be extreme hardship on everybody, but harder on the breeders than everybody else,” Mr. Pons said. “Trainers can put their horse on a van to Delaware, but folks who have farms are dug in here. [Mr. Busch] wants a plan for 2006. It’s not their first plan, but we’re hoping it moves the rock a little bit.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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