Racetrack crews find temporary relief from closure worries

Frances Kent has made her home for 22 years in one room along the backstretch at Laurel Park. She pays no rent, but also has no private bath or cooking appliances, which are not allowed, so she saves coupons for Arby's roast beef specials and other fast food, and finds that canned "tomato soup is not bad cold."

Lately, concerns as basic as food and shelter have been heightened in this part of the track as Kent, 69, who works as a horse walker, has wondered about making it to year 23 in room 13 in the cinderblock bunkhouse among the horse barns. Rumors of the park closing were buzzing from late fall into winter, and Kent had begun to check out places near her home town of Dublin, Va., for spots to store her possessions if she had to move out. She also worried about her colleagues.

"A lot of them will be living under the bridges" if the park were to close, said Kent, referring to hundreds of grooms and horse walkers who call Laurel Park their workplace and also their home. "And the bridges aren't safe to be under."

Her bunkhouse neighbor, Annamarie Starnes, 54, a groom and walker, said, "you have people here who wouldn't have a chance" working elsewhere. "This is all they know."

The track never had to make an announcement about imminent closure, and the immediate fear has subsided for now. An agreement struck last week by key players in Maryland racing will guarantee that the Preakness Stakes will run at Pimlico Race Course and thoroughbred meets will continue in 2011. The 146-day schedule starts in Laurel on Jan. 1.

New Year's Day offerings include nine races and a champagne brunch for $23 per person, featuring stations where steak is carved, omelets prepared and shrimp stir-fried as you wait. The day will mark the beginning of Laurel Park's centennial year.

The pact that made it possible was not meant to solve the industry's long-term problems, but the people who make their living at Laurel say news of the deal unleashed a wave of relief — from the bunkhouses to the modest executive offices by the grandstand.

"That was everybody's early Christmas present," said Georganne Hale, the director of racing and racing secretary, who is now busy making up for lost time putting together the guide that trainers will use to enter horses in January races.

Many details that go into a season, from writing the race schedule to drafting a contract to lease the starting gate, were in limbo until last week, she said. The Maryland Jockey Club — which runs Pimlico, Laurel and a training center at Bowie — published a 2011 wall calendar that is essentially blank, as it includes no dates for the Maryland Million, Sunshine Million or other events like the Preakness, reflecting the latest bout of uncertainty to hit Maryland racing.

Maryland tracks for years have faced increasing competition from expanded lotteries, slots and other gambling options. With the exception of the Preakness, track crowds have fallen steadily and the Jockey Club has been losing about $7 million a year for at least three years, said President Tom Chuckas. Changes in track ownership in the past 10 years have raised periodic alarms that Maryland was about to lose the Preakness — the state's biggest single sporting event and the economic engine for the rest of the thoroughbred season — and with it, the entire racing business.

The crisis threatened the Jockey Club's 350 full-time and 650 part-time workers, as well as thousands of others whose livelihoods depend on racing. A 1999 study tied 9,000 jobs in Maryland to horse racing and breeding, with an overall economic impact of $600 million a year.

While the powerful players wrangled the latest deal at the State House in Annapolis, people at the track wondered what the future might hold if a way of work and life they've known for decades came to an end. Trainers had started moving horses to winter quarters or other trainers elsewhere, Hale said.

"People were frantic. ... 'Oh my God, what are we going to do,' " said Becky Goodman, 42, a former groom whose fiance works at Laurel. She said she was less concerned than some others, because she has experience working for fast-food restaurants and in cosmetology, and figured she could find work elsewhere.

Starnes had no such reassurances. She's worked in racing for 29 years, and has experience as a nurse's aide and store manager. But her severe rheumatoid arthritis limits her dexterity. She has difficulty with some of the work she does now because her hands sometimes lock up in a grip.

"I really don't know what I would do," she said. "I'd probably be homeless, sleeping in my car."

Even for those who don't live at the track, it's still a home base. The newly settled yearlong schedule spares track workers from having to uproot their lives every few months, following racing seasons from one state to another. Track workers shift to Pimlico after Laurel's live racing ends March 26, but they do not have to leave Maryland.

"It was a big relief to be able to know you could stay here," said Eveline Kjelstrup, who has worked for her trainer, Rodney Jenkins, for 23 years. Now an assistant trainer and foreman at the 40-horse barn, she said, "This way you can have a house and a dog and a life. There's a lot to be said for year-round racing, instead of the gypsy life."

She was showing a visitor around the horse barn, having finished up the first part of her day, which she started more than seven hours earlier at 4 a.m. by getting horses fed and ready for about 90 minutes of exercise — walking, running, walking again. She'd be taking a break, then returning in the afternoon to drive a 5-year-old filly named Ruby Peak to Charlestown, W.Va., for a night race. It was going to be a very long day.

Luis Canales was heading out for the day, strolling past the stables in a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and track shoes. He's been coming to Laurel since he was a boy and his father worked for a trainer here.

"I just fell in love with horses," said Canales, a 48-year-old groom who has worked at Laurel for most of the past 30 years. For a few years he worked as a store manager at a mall in Springfield, Va., and he figures he'll go back to retail management if the tracks don't survive. He hopes it doesn't come to that.

"It was always in my blood, I love this," said Canales. More people could love the sport, too, he argued, if they were given more incentive to watch it at the track. He faulted track management over the years for poor marketing and failing to cultivate a younger audience with promotions, merchandise giveaways, and more live music at the track.

"Kids love horses," he said. "My daughter's in love with it. …You've got to bring in the new crowd."

Slots, he said, are not the long-term answer, as they have nothing to do with the sport itself.

It was a turn in slots politics, however, that helped put the 2011 season in jeopardy. The latest trouble arose after Anne Arundel County voters decided by referendum in November to allow a slot-machine parlor at Arundel Mills mall, about 10 miles from Laurel Park. That apparently will bar slots from Laurel, which would have been entitled to a third of the gambling proceeds from the machines. The Jockey Club president responded soon after the vote by saying live racing would have to end at the tracks.

The club then proposed a 47-day season, but that was rejected by the Maryland Racing Commission. Gov. Martin O'Malley presided over days of often contentious meetings this month among the commission, the Jockey Club, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association — representing trainers and owners — and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. The result was a deal on Dec. 22 for the two associations and the state to split a contribution of $5.4 million to $6 million toward running the tracks for another year.

The men who forged the deal don't claim that this is anything more than a short-term fix.

Dr. Tom Bowman, a veterinarian and president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the arrangement buys time to figure out a more lasting solution. He echoed Canales, arguing that the industry has been complacent for too long, and has done a poor job of "selling its excitement to the outside."

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said racing executives are still trying to find their footing after the Anne Arundel County vote.

"After the November election, the dynamic changed," said Hoffberger. "Everybody was hoping slots would be available at Laurel. … We worked on that plan for 15 years, and it failed."

Chuckas, the Jockey Club president, said, "I don't have the long-term solution as I sit here today," but he said it seems there's a renewed sense of urgency to do something.

"The gravity of the situation has hit the parties" involved, he said.


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