Maryland Jockey Club to curtail operations

Maryland's horse racing interests have warned for years that the industry's long tradition would come to an end without the legalization of slot machine gambling in the state.

They just never imagined the slots casino would rise in the parking lot of Arundel Mills mall — instead of at the thoroughbred tracks. But that is exactly what is planned after Anne Arundel County voters passed a ballot measure Tuesday approving the mall casino 10 miles from the Laurel Park racetrack.

The Maryland Jockey Club, the operator of Laurel Park and Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, spent millions of dollars in a failed effort to defeat the ballot question. On Wednesday, the Jockey Club reiterated plans to significantly curtail its racing operations, a move that horsemen, breeders and industry supporters say could deal a death blow to the state's thoroughbred tradition.

State officials, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, have made overtures about saving the dwindling industry, and racing officials said they would explore ways to keep it viable, but a plan has yet to emerge. Some are pinning their hopes on David Cordish, the Baltimore developer of the mall casino, buying the tracks and turning them around. But the owners say the tracks aren't for sale.

The Jockey Club's plan, which must be reviewed by the state's racing commission, would be to eliminate live racing at Laurel Park and turn the facility into an off-track betting site. It also would close a Bowie training center. And it would run a 40-day annual meet at Pimlico around the Preakness Stakes — a schedule too short to sustain the industry in the state, according to racing boosters.

"That is the demise," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We have an industry that operates on a year-round basis, and the participants can't make a living operating 40 days a year."

The horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounted for more than 9,000 jobs and generated $600 million annually, according to a state analysis several years ago. Since then, Rosecroft Raceway closed in June, leaving Ocean Downs near Ocean City as the state's only harness track. Laurel Park and Pimlico represent the bulk of thoroughbred racing in Maryland.

Laurel Park has been losing $4 million to $7 million annually for several years, according to Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas. While Pimlico is profitable, its income comes almost entirely from the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown and a Baltimore institution. In the past, Pimlico has provided financial assistance by transferring money so Laurel Park can continue to operate.

Revenue from the planned Arundel Mills slots parlor and other casinos in the state have been earmarked to fund capital improvements at tracks and to augment racing purses, which have declined as the amount wagered has dropped by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years. But without slots at Laurel Park, the track has no new revenue to fund operations, Chuckas said.

"The purses are essential, and it will generate more business," Chuckas said. But "it's not significant enough to turn the tide without funds to create programs, to do some different things to acquire a younger demographic."

Chuckas said the Jockey Club would explore its legal options in the wake of the referendum but he provided no details.

O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said the governor would "continue working with Maryland's agriculture and horse industries, to do what we can to come through this recession while maintaining Maryland's racing heritage."

O'Malley, a Democrat who won re-election Tuesday, had supported putting slot machines at Laurel Park and had argued in favor of the 2008 referendum to approve the expansion of gambling as a way to save the Maryland horse industry.

Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Cos., which plans to build the 4,750-machine slots parlor at Arundel Mills, had said before the election that he would buy the tracks if they stop operating. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But Chuckas reiterated the Jockey Club's position that the tracks are not for sale. "I find it hard to believe that a successful businessman would take on a property that loses significant amounts of money," he said.

Chuckas said Laurel Park cannot compete with Cordish's planned casino and its amenities, which are to include restaurants and a live entertainment venue, at Arundel Mills. Cordish said Tuesday that he would seek approval for a temporary slots facility on mall grounds by early next year.

The news that the Jockey Club plans to cut its operations shocked and disappointed horsemen, breeders and trainers.

"What they're planning to do is a shame," said Audrey Murray, who owns Murmur Farm in Darlington with her husband. "We've put all our money into breeding, training and racing in Maryland. This is our life. This is our income. It's that way for so many. This is going to put the unemployment numbers way up."

The Murrays stand four stallions, including Preakness winner Louis Quatorze, and they recently added a second farm and built a training track there.

She said she hopes Cordish meant it when he said he would buy the tracks and keep racing going. "I hope he follows through," she said.

King Leatherbury, one of the top trainers in Maryland horse racing history, said he can't even think about the prospect of scaled-down Jockey Club operations.

"I've purposely put it out of my mind," he said. "I can't do anything about it. None of us can. Everyone else who has slots in every other state has them at the racetracks because it makes sense. This is such a shock.

"Surely, something can come to our aid in some fashion," he added.

This year, the Jockey Club completed 20 days of racing at Pimlico and is conducting 126 days at Laurel Park. Laurel Park's last day of racing is Dec. 18.

Chuckas said the Jockey Club will submit its new operating plan to the Maryland Racing Commission this month. The proposed changes at Laurel Park and Pimlico and the closure of Bowie would likely occur next year, though the exact timing is uncertain, he said.

Under state law, the commission must approve racing days by December. While the law calls for Pimlico to run at least 40 live racing days, the Baltimore racetrack has operated only 20 days in recent years with the agreement of thoroughbred owners and trainers.

Plans to redevelop Laurel Park and the surrounding property for mixed uses have been discussed, but Chuckas declined to say Wednesday where those plans stand.

The Jockey Club had lobbied state leaders for years to legalize slot machine gambling to save a horse racing industry that was declining in popularity. But after voters approved slots in a 2008 referendum, the Jockey Club's corporate parent, Magna Entertainment Corp., failed to pay the required deposit when vying for the slots license in Anne Arundel County. Cordish paid the licensing fee.

"We fought for 15 years to get to this point, and for this to go up in smoke is mind-boggling," said Alan Foreman, attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We thought we set the industry up for the long-term future. Now it's in its demise. It's heartbreaking."

Lori Testerman, a Lutherville horse trainer, was despondent that the Jockey Club planned to curtail operations. Eliminating live racing at Laurel would kill her business, Testerman said, because she trains 14 horses there. She said she hopes an "innovative" solution is found. But she's worried.

"I'm so disappointed," she said. "I've done this my whole life. I have no idea what I'm going to do. I'm not qualified to do anything else."

Baltimore Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Gus Sentementes contributed to this article.

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