The owner of Maryland's two major thoroughbred tracks and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association reached a tentative agreement Saturday to maintain 146 days of live racing next year, avoiding another last-minute showdown that threatened the racing industry.
"I am glad we got this resolved," Richard Hoffberger, president of the horsemen's association, said in a statement. "This means running the same amount of live days as this year which was important to the horsemen to maintain a year-round program."
The disagreement turned into a case of deja vu for the thoroughbred racing industry, which almost saw their sport collapse last year.
In an 11th-hour deal brokered by Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Jockey Club agreed to maintain 146 days of live racing in 2011. The governor's administration also pushed through legislation that would redirect up to $6 million annually in slots revenue to help the financially struggling tracks for the next two years. In exchange, the Jockey Club would maintain a 146-day schedule in 2012 and 2013.
But in October, the Stronach Group, the parent company of the Jockey Club, surprised industry stakeholders by announcing that it did not want to take the state's help and proposed running only 40 live racing days next year at Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes. Moreover, the Stronach Group wanted to lease Laurel Park and Bowie Training Center to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association — a plan that would have turned the nonprofit group into a track operator.
The horsemen's association vehemently opposed the Stronach Group's proposal. Since then, the two parties had been in negotiations to avoid the cloud that had hung over the industry last year.
The details of the latest agreement, which the parties said was reached in principle Saturday, were not available. It also wasn't clear Saturday whether the Jockey Club would request slots subsidy for its operations next year.
The deal came just days before the Maryland Racing Commission's last scheduled meeting of the year on Tuesday and a few weeks before the 2012 racing season is to start. The racing commission must approve the deal. The board of the horsemen's group also needs to ratify the agreement.
Even with the 2012 live racing schedule in place, the racing industry still faces an uncertain future.
The Jockey Club and the horsemen said Saturday that they would continue to meet regularly to develop a long-term plan for thoroughbred racing, a sport that dates back to Colonial times in Maryland. They hope to have a proposal by July 1.
Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said in a statement that the management team "looks forward to working with other industry participants in creating a long-term plan for sustainability in Maryland."
Racing commission member John McDaniel, who along with member Bruce Quade moderated talks between the two sides, said the regulatory body wants to see a "sustainable business model for the future."
The 2012 racing season begins Jan. 4 at Laurel Park. Meanwhile, this year's season ended Saturday.