Maryland dates cut

Sep 20, 2005 4:54 AM

Magna Entertainment Corporation (MECA) last week shocked the world of thoroughbred racing by requesting the Maryland Racing Commission to accept a plan that reduces live racing dates in that state to 112 from the previous 220 days.

The idea, proposed by Joe De Francis on behalf of the Maryland Jockey Club, was to increase purse money from a daily offering of $193,877 to $303,571 to make Maryland racing competitive with other states in the area that have the advantage of slot machine revenue.

Maryland horsemen were flabbergasted when they heard the proposal. Industry leaders said the plan placed in jeopardy the future of thoroughbred racing in the state and the possible end to its prominent breeding industry.

After listening to De Francis expound on the benefits of the plan and to the opposition from horsemen, the Commission postponed making a decision until its next meeting on Oct. 6.

Earlier, Magna Entertainment had suggested it might elect to move to another location — possibly Gulfstream Park in Florida — the annual running of the Preakness Stakes, the second stop in the Triple Crown. The new plan would shut down Maryland racing from Preakness Day to November 3.

For several years both track operators and horsemen have lobbied the Maryland legislature to approve track slot machines so that they could compete with states such as Delaware and West Virginia (and by next year Pennsylvania), whose racing purses have been boosted by slots revenue. Although strong support for slots has emerged, House Speaker Michael Busch, a staunch opponent to gambling, has been successful in preventing favorable legislation from becoming law.

Following the meeting, De Francis said the MECA plan was "our best effort" to keep Maryland racing viable.

"This is a business plan. It is not a negotiable document. Churchill Downs Inc. (CHDN) has sold Hollywood Park to a real estate developer. In two years, if there are no slots in California, Hollywood Park will be closed and developed for commercial or real estate use. And if there were anyone other than Frank Stronach running a public company, he would act with a cold heart and do the same thing here. But that’s not what we’re doing," De Francis said.

Stronach, a prominent stable operator and breeder of thoroughbreds, founded Magna Entertainment and spent multiple millions of dollars to acquire racetracks in both the U.S. and Canada.