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Maryland Jockey Club to seek 77 racing days

The owners of Maryland's two major thoroughbred tracks proposed Friday to run 77 days of live racing next year at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course that would conclude after the Preakness Stakes in May.

Meanwhile, the tracks' minority owner, Penn National Gaming, said it would pursue slots at Laurel Park, which means lobbying to change the state constitution to allow a second casino in Anne Arundel County when the General Assembly reconvenes next month. Amending the constitution is a complicated and uncertain process.

The 77-day schedule, which is similar to this year's winter and spring meets at Laurel Park and Pimlico, would "give us a few months to work together in an open environment" to devise a business plan for the Maryland Jockey Club that would turn around the money-losing operation, said Frank Stronach, chairman and chief executive of the tracks' majority owner, MI Developments. The Jockey Club operates Laurel Park and Pimlico.

"A business that doesn't make a profit is not good for anyone," Stronach said in a brief interview Friday. "We're not talking about an enormous, but a reasonable return."

MI Developments and Penn National, which own the Jockey Club through a joint venture, had sought approval to operate a 47-day racing schedule next year at Laurel Park and Pimlico, or about one-third of this year's racing schedule of 146 days.

But the Maryland Racing Commission unanimously rejected that plan late last month, putting the state's thoroughbred racing industry in limbo with no live racing schedule in place for next year. That move also jeopardized the Preakness Stakes.

The new racing schedule needs the approval of the racing commission, which is expected to meet Dec. 21.

Eric Schippers, Penn National's senior vice president for public affairs, said Friday that the Pennsylvania casino operator is on board with the proposed racing schedule. Any major decision involving the racing operations requires the unanimous approval of the joint venture's five-member board, led by an MID majority, though the board has not taken an official vote on the new schedule, according to Schippers.

"We're OK with it and are happy to be in a position to save the Preakness as we look toward a long-term plan for the viability of racing in Maryland," he said.

For Penn, a plan to ensure racing's survival in Maryland needs to include slot machines at the Laurel racetrack, as is done in neighboring West Virginia and Delaware, Schippers said.

Jockey Club officials say Laurel Park has been losing $4 million to $7 million annually for several years. And Pimlico's profit comes almost entirely from the Preakness, the middle jewel of racing's Triple Crown and the state's biggest one-day sporting event.

"Gaming has been the key to revitalizing racing in those states," Schippers said. "For the Maryland racing industry to remain competitive and for these assets to be financially viable long term, it's dependent on slots at the tracks."

But only one slots license is allowed in Anne Arundel County, and voters there approved a ballot measure allowing a slots casino at Arundel Mills. The Jockey Club was disqualified as a bidder for not paying the license application fee, and it fought unsuccessfully to defeat the ballot measure.

Adding a second location in the county would require changing the state's constitution, which limits slots parlors to five sites in the state, with one in Anne Arundel.

It is unclear whether the new schedule would satisfy state racing officials, breeders, trainers and owners. In recent weeks, some in the horse racing industry have called for new ownership of Laurel Park and Pimlico, calling on the state to consider seizing the tracks and the Preakness through its eminent domain authority.

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, whose officials could not be reached Friday, has made it clear that the industry needs a schedule similar to this year's to ensure year-round racing.

Regardless of a deal for next year's racing schedule, Steuart Pittman, president of the Maryland Horse Council, said that should not "prevent the governor from intervening and forcing a transfer of ownership."

"While we want the governor to move forward, we also want to go to the stockholders of both of these companies and convince them that doing business in Maryland doesn't make sense for MI Developments and Penn," Pittman said.

Racing commission chairman Louis Ulman said he would like to see the Jockey Club's new plan before commenting.

Commission member John Franzone said he expects the tracks' owners to submit a comprehensive business plan that takes into account new potential revenue streams, marketing ideas and other measures to make the enterprise more financially viable.

"What the commission is expecting is more than racing dates," he said Friday.

In the meantime, Stronach said he will attend next week's meeting with state officials and representatives of the racing industry to broker a deal for live racing next year.

"I come there with a lot of good will," Stronach said. "I'm a major horse owner. I love racing. I'm a major breeder. I still feel if we work together, we should be able to come up with a formula where racing could be viable in Maryland."

The meeting would be the second convened by Gov. Martin O'Malley's office, which met Monday with representatives of MI Developments, Penn National and groups representing horsemen and breeders. O'Malley's chief legislative officer, Joseph Bryce, said the second meeting is expected to take place early next week.

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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