Maryland's racing commission approves 2013 dates, new simulcasting deal

Minutes before Tuesday's meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, officials representing tracks and horsemen from throughout the state staked out space in a darkened lounge at Laurel Park. They shuffled through paperwork, then wrote quickly on the last page of the document and passed it to the next person in line.

This was not a discreet ceremonial signing of the 10-year racing deal meant to bring stability to an industry that has repeatedly relied on government help. That deal, announced Friday, was already in place and was the subject of resounding praise.

But commissioners soon learned what the clandestine agreement was about: Fresh off crafting a deal it hopes will allow tracks, horsemen and breeders to thrive, the thoroughbred industry announced it had resolved a long-standing simulcasting dispute with Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.

After a three-year battle, the Penn National-owned track will once again simulcast races from Laurel and Pimlico Race Course and show thoroughbred races from throughout the country starting Jan. 1.

The sides avoided state-mandated arbitration on the simulcast issue last week by coming up with the framework for a deal but took until Tuesday to finalize it. Money raised through gambling on thoroughbred races will likely give Rosecroft, which will run 54 harness racing days in 2013, the revenue it needs to continue hosting the races.

"We hope this gives us a happy owner," said Tom Cooke, president of Cloverleaf, the standardbred horsemen's association. "We need the chance to continue racing."

The deal wasn't on the agenda, but the commission gave it preliminary approval Tuesday pending further review.

Chairman Bruce F. Quade called the larger 10-year agreement "one of the best things to happen in a long time."

While 2013 will include a guaranteed 146 racing dates between Laurel and Pimlico — a schedule similar to the one run this year was approved Tuesday — it is considered a bridge year. The new deal, promising 100 racing days but giving horsemen the chance to underwrite additional events, begins in 2014. By then, the Bowie training center will be closed and renovations to the stabling areas of Laurel and possibly Pimlico will be under way.

The Maryland Jockey Club has guaranteed 1,900 stables for the horsemen, and will submit its renovation plans to the state by February.

Financial terms of the deal have not been released, but Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas said none of the slot-revenue money designated for purses will be shared with the tracks.

Alan Foreman, longtime lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, praised Chuckas' leadership on the deal. Tension between the tracks and horse owners and trainers has simmered for years, leaving the commission to mediate the fight over racing dates each December. But an increase in purses due to slots revenue — from $185,000 per day for last year's races at Laurel to more than $240,000 during the current meet — spurred more serious negotiations.

"There were times over the last few years where being down seemed like being up," Foreman said. "What made it work is that we were in this together and we saw what the future could be."

Stability provided by the new agreement allowed the thoroughbred interests to reach a simulcast deal with Penn National and give that company time to contemplate its next move in Maryland.

Penn National bought Rosecroft out of bankruptcy in February 2011, largely because it hoped the approval of a slots license for Prince George's County would result in a casino opening at the track. But as it became clear that many in the state preferred the National Harbor site, Penn National turned into the most ardent lobbyist against expanded gambling; the company spent $44 million to try to defeat Question 7, which passed in November.

It remains unclear whether Penn National plans to continue operating Rosecroft if it does not get a gaming license. The company has made a commitment to race through 2013 but no further, Cooke said.

Officials from the company's corporate office could not be reached for comment, but they previously have said tracks in Maryland could only be successful when paired with gaming. Penn National divested its interest in the Maryland Jockey Club when it became clear Laurel would not get slots.

When it closed in 2010, Rosecroft's ownership cited the $5.9 million it paid the thoroughbred industry each year as the reason the track could not turn a profit. Harness racing had been suspended in 2008 after precipitous drops in attendance and handle, and track officials wanted to pay only $2 million for simulcasting rights.

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