Maryland's thoroughbred horse racing tracks and the state's horsemen are close to agreement on a 10-year deal that would give the industry stability it has not seen in decades, those involved in the negotiations say.
"We've had years of not knowing what the future would hold," said Alan Foreman, the lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "But now we're running for historic levels of purse money and are on the cusp of an unprecedented revenue-sharing agreement with the track operator."
While the deal with the Maryland Jockey Club still needs to gain approval by the boards of the horsemen's association and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, it could be announced by the end of the week.
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Members of the Maryland Racing Commission had given the sides a Nov. 30 deadline. In recent years, haggling over racing dates often stretched well into December, playing out publicly and threatening the future of the business in a state where it once had been so important.
A long-term deal finally could put horse racing on the path its advocates predicted 10 years ago when the state began moving to legalize gambling. But those early hopes were based on the assumption that slot machines would end up at the tracks; at one point, the Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel, envisioned spending $500 million to rebuild the facilities as "racinos."
Neither managed to secure a license, though, and the Jockey Club has seen only a minor benefit from gambling. Seven percent of slots revenues, or about $2.8 million in October, goes toward purses. That has allowed Maryland to attract more and better horses, but attendance at the tracks has stagnated and a shift toward online wagering has continued. Also, 1.75 percent of slots revenue goes to a track facility renewal account.
The Maryland Jockey Club lost $5.3 million in 2011 and $20 million in 2010.
"We're trying for a plan that is going to benefit all involved and encourage people to invest in Maryland horse racing," Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said. "That being said, we can't continue to lose money and operate as a business."
The Stronach Group — parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, which also owns the Bowie training center — has offered to guarantee 146 days of racing next year and 100 days in each subsequent year. The horsemen would have the option to buy more days and could be in better position to do so, Foreman said, because purses will continue to grow with the opening of casinos in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
He also said the guarantee of race dates will persuade more trainers to operate in Maryland. Breeders, too, will be more likely to spend money on their programs knowing their colts and fillies will have local places to run and that programs setting aside funds for Maryland-born foals will be in place and could grow.
"This has long been the problem," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the horsemen's association. "Breeders can't operate on a year-to-year basis. They need to be able to plan ahead."
The Jockey Club wants to close Bowie — as operators have talked about doing for more than two decades — and move horses stabled there to Laurel and Pimlico. That could require building new stalls at one or both facilities, and the sides have haggled over how much barn space will be necessary in years to come. Year-round stabling at Pimlico ended in 2001, though some horses were shifted there during renovations at Laurel in the mid-2000s.
Many trainers from north of Baltimore have been upset about their inability to train at Pimlico, while many trainers from south of Bowie would be upset if the training center closes.
"Any news that gives some long-term assurance is going to be good," said Graham Motion, one of the top trainers in the country. He once stabled horses at Laurel but now works out of the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County.
Work on a long-term deal began in January and proceeded slowly — and quietly — for months as the two sides sought a way to sustain the sport for the long term. While Foreman and Chuckas — the primary negotiators — would not discuss details of how the revenue sharing would work, they expressed confidence that Maryland's racing industry would better be able to compete with tracks in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where gambling money bolstered the sport years ago.
"We've been talking about this rejuvenation of the sport for a while now in Maryland," Foreman said. "We're in position to do that. This agreement can secure the future."