Laurel Park, Pimlico owner to ask for state help in 2012

The owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course plans to ask the state for up to $6 million in slots subsidies to help run 146 days of live racing at the two tracks next year.

The move was part of a deal approved Tuesday by the Maryland Racing Commission, three days after the Maryland Jockey Club and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association agreed to maintain year-round racing in 2012.

The deal reached Tuesday also calls for the horsemen's group to contribute $4 million to the financially ailing Jockey Club to support the 146 days of live racing.

"Based on today's projections, I believe we'll need the state subsidy and the horsemen's contribution to reach a break-even point," Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said.

That indicates the Jockey Club would be on track to lose $10 million in 2012 without the financial assistance from the state and the horsemen's group.

The deal averted a showdown between the Jockey Club's corporate parent and the horsemen for the second year in a row.

The guarantee of a full live racing calendar for another year also came as a relief to the thoroughbred racing industry. For years it has watched as neighboring states legalized slots gambling and table games at racetracks while its own wagering revenues and track attendance declined.

The Jockey Club has been losing several millions of dollars annually for years, though the Preakness Stakes itself has been profitable. The Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is held at Pimlico. Last year, Laurel Park and Pimlico lost a combined $20 million.

"Hopefully it'll be a good year for thoroughbred racing in 2012," Racing Commission Chairman Louis Ulman said after the unanimous vote to approve the number of racing days.

Maryland racing, which dates to Colonial times, faced a near-collapse a year ago when the Jockey Club's then-corporate parents sought to significantly curtail the racing schedule, a move opposed by horse owners, breeders and other stakeholders.

But in a last-minute deal brokered by Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Jockey Club agreed to maintain 146 days in 2011. In exchange, the state agreed to provide $3.6 million in a loan supported by slots revenue set aside for track improvements, while the horse owners' group contributed $1.7 million.

The governor and other supporters also 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 both 2012 and 2013.

In October, however, the Jockey Club's parent company, the Stronach Group, revealed that it did not want to accept the state's help and proposed to run only 40 live racing days next year at Pimlico. The move shocked Maryland horsemen and other stakeholders, who assumed the legislation would give the industry several years of stability to come up with a long-term plan for the sport's future.

The Stronach Group also sought to lease Laurel Park and Bowie Training Center to the horsemen's group, which opposed the proposal.

Racing Commission members John McDaniel and Bruce Quade helped mediate the talks, which intensified over the last week and culminated in the agreement reached on Saturday.

Talks about the sport's future in Maryland will continue in January. Representatives of the Jockey Club, the horsemen's association and the Racing Commission are to begin meeting every two weeks starting Jan. 7, said Quade, who will take part in the discussions.

The group's goal is to devise a long-term business plan for the industry by July 1.

"There is a recognition that there has to be stability," Quade said. "For anyone — track owners, breeders and horsemen — to make an investment, you want to know there is something in place for the out years."

A wide range of options, including the possibility of reducing the number of racing days and coordinating Maryland's racing program with those of racetracks in other states to create a regional circuit, are on the table, said Alan Foreman, an attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"We are looking at everything to try to hopefully come to something that works for everyone," Foreman said.

Another priority is determining the future of Bowie Training Center, where owners stable their horses. Chuckas said the Jockey Club spends $2.2 million to $2.5 million a year to keep Bowie open, even though the facility loses money.

"The key is the way we've been doing business in the past is not doable in this marketplace," Chuckas said.

Meanwhile, arbitration between the thoroughbred industry and Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Prince George's County, has begun in order to resolve a disagreement over fees associated with the broadcast of thoroughbred races.

The Jockey Club's eligibility for the slots subsidies is conditional on the group's reaching a settlement with Rosecroft.

The fight dates to 2009, when Rosecroft stopped paying the Jockey Club, the horsemen's group and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association millions of dollars in fees annually to receive simulcast signals for thoroughbred racing. The Prince George's County track then lost its right to broadcast the races.