Racing boss stops move to close Laurel Park

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Delivering surprising if tenuous hope to Maryland's horse-racing industry, track owner Frank Stronach reversed his organization's move to slash thoroughbred meets and end races at Laurel Park next year, saying he hopes to strike a deal with breeders and state officials to save Laurel as well as Baltimore's historic Pimlico Race Course.

"I don't believe in making rash decisions," said Stronach, whose MI Developments controls Laurel and Pimlico Race Course through its stake in the Maryland Jockey Club. "I'd like to sit down with the horse racing board and with the major horsemen to come up with solutions."

The auto-parts magnate pledged to hold races at Laurel and Pimlico next year on a schedule similar to this year's — a combined 146 racing days.

"The main thing is that we keep the tracks open and more or less run reasonably the same days that we ran the last two years," he said in an interview Monday.

That's the opposite of what Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas has been saying for two weeks.

"It's not a threat. It's a reality," Chuckas said last week after promising that Laurel Park's Dec. 18 races would be its last. Voters had just effectively awarded the Anne Arundel County slot-machine franchise to an Arundel Mills mall site, dooming Laurel's chances of getting its own slots.

Under those conditions, Chuckas said, the track couldn't survive. Laurel would end live races and Pimlico would race only 40 days a year.

"I was really annoyed when I read that," Stronach said. "That would not be my style. So I was surprised when I saw it on the Daily Racing [Form] that we would be cutting back and just have Pimlico. That's not the case."

Chuckas couldn't be reached for comment Monday. (You might be unavailable, too, if your boss pulled a switch like that.)

But Stronach may have had second thoughts about closing Laurel after running into Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, at a Kentucky horse auction on Sunday.

"We sat down to discuss racing in Maryland" for about 20 minutes in the dining room of thoroughbred auction firm Fasig-Tipton, Hoffberger said in an interview Monday. "It didn't take very long for the boss to say, 'Richard, if you'll work with me, I'll keep the racetrack open.' I said, 'Frank, you just saved thousands of jobs.'"

That remains to be seen.

Stronach's reprieve buys a year for the status quo. He made no promises beyond 2011. Laurel loses millions of dollars annually, while Pimlico is essentially supported by one event, the Preakness Stakes. Winners' purses fattened by newly available slots proceeds should draw contestants and spectators, but Maryland racing has been losing ground to competitors in nearby states.

It's not as though tracks have prospered under Stronach, although many would argue that what the industry really needed was slots approval and fatter purses a decade ago.

In any event, Stronach's comments drew praise and hope from public officials.

"That shows good judgment on his part to see if the enhanced revenue from slots will help the industry," said Louis Ulman, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. "Maybe they can make some improvements from the matching funds," also from slots, for capital upgrades.

Shaun Adamec, spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, called Stronach's comments "a positive development" and commended Stronach for understanding that downsizing racing "should be carefully considered because of the amount of jobs at stake."

A state analysis several years ago estimated that Maryland's horse-racing and breeding industry accounted for more than 9,000 jobs.

Developer David Cordish, who overcame the Jockey Club's powerful opposition to his slots project at Arundel Mills and had blasted Chuckas' pledge to end races at Laurel, suggested that slots money will help the tracks. And if it doesn't save them, he added, he's still interested in leading a group to take them over.

If the Jockey Club "doesn't screw it up, they will be the beneficiary of $100 million a year of new money" from slots, Cordish said Monday via e-mail. "There are responsible groups ready, willing and able to take over Maryland racing and turn it around."

Stronach, 78, said he will probably visit Baltimore in the next two weeks to meet breeders and state officials. Although he'll work to save Laurel and Pimlico, he said, MI Developments' training center at the former Bowie Race Track would still close.

Asked about Chuckas' future with the Jockey Club, Stronach said: "Tom is OK. I don't know where statements of that sort were made."

It's unclear what additionally would be tried to help Laurel Park and Pimlico. The Jockey Club had pinned all its hopes on Laurel Park slots, which could have subsidized the tracks with on-site slots profits in addition to the slots revenue guaranteed by law.

The racing commission's Ulman said he recently discussed new wagering combinations with Stronach as a way of boosting track attendance.

Or maybe the Pimlico track could move to downtown Baltimore, qualifying for a slots license available there, suggested Alan Foreman, an attorney for the Horsemen's Association.

But Stronach, repeating comments he has made before, said horse racing needs to succeed on its own.

On-site slots "are not the solution in the long run," he said. "In the long run, there'll be so many games out there," pulling gamblers in all directions, that racing will need its own fix, he said.

But for now, he'll give the remedy prescribed by the legislature — as much as $100 million in added purse rewards — a chance to work. Fatter purses "would help," Stronach said. "There's no question."

jay.hancock@baltsun.com
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