Horsemen offer help in 2012 for a full racing schedule

The owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course plans to ask the state for up to $6 million in slots subsidies to help support the day-to-day operations of the tracks next year.

The move is part of the Maryland Jockey Club's deal with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to maintain 146 days of live racing in 2012. The deal that provides another year of a full live racing schedule also calls for the horsemen group to provide a $4 million contribution to the Jockey Club.

The Maryland Racing Commission approved Tuesday the agreement that was reached by the two sides over the weekend.

While a full live racing calendar has been guaranteed for another year, the Maryland industry still faces mounting challenges: competition from racetracks with slots and table games in neighboring states, declining wagering revenue and falling attendance at the tracks.

"The key is the discussions will continue going forward into 2012, with the view of hopefully having the framework of a long-term strategic plan by July," said Alan Foreman, attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

The last-minute agreement came less than three weeks before the start of the 2012 racing season and prevented a logjam that threatened the industry's future. The deal is scheduled to go before the Maryland Racing Commission on Tuesday. The group must approve the racing schedule.

Foreman declined Monday to reveal the amount that the horsemen's group agreed to provide to help pay for the Jockey Club's day-to-day operations. The Jockey Club has lost millions of dollars annually for at least a decade.

The horse owners' organization contributed $1.7 million in 2011, while the state agreed to provide $3.6 million under an 11th-hour deal brokered last year by Gov. Martin O'Malley that helped sustain 146 days of racing this year.

So far, the Jockey Club has received $3.45 million, said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission. The Maryland Economic Development Corp., or MEDCO, provided the money as a loan that was to be repaid throughout the year using slots revenue intended for thoroughbred track improvements.

Questions also remained Monday about whether the Jockey Club would apply for slots funds to help its finances. Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas declined to comment Monday ahead of the Racing Commission's meeting.

This year, the governor and other supporters pushed through legislation that would redirect up to $6 million annually in slots revenue to help the tracks for the next two years. In exchange, the Jockey Club would maintain a 146-day racing schedule in 2012 and 2013.

However, any assumption that the industry would have a couple of years of stability to craft a long-term business plan was thrown for a loop when the Stronach Group, the Jockey Club's parent company, revealed in October that it did not want to accept the state's help.

Instead, it pushed a proposal to run only 40 live racing days next year at Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes. The Stronach Group also sought to lease Laurel Park and Bowie Training Center to the horsemen's group, which opposed the proposal.

For weeks it appeared that talks were not progressing, but the two sides continued to exchange proposals and reached an agreement Saturday morning, Foreman said.

As talks about the sport's future continue, Foreman said nearly every issue would be on the table, including the possibilities of adjusting the number of racing days in the future and coordinating Maryland's racing program with those of racetracks in other states.

"There are a number of people who believe the foundation for a successful industry here is in place, particularly with the Arundel Mills [casino] opening sometime in 2012 and the possibility of a Baltimore City [slots] location," Foreman said. "It's adapting to a very dramatically changing environment in the racing industry, let alone what's going on in general with the economy."