Horsemen to boycott at Laurel Pimlico proposal cited for action


Henry Clark, considered the grand old man of Maryland racing, has never participated in a boycott of any kind.

But yesterday the 87-year-old Hall of Fame horse trainer joined in with 69 of his colleagues at Pimlico Race Course and voted to strike the entry box at Laurel Race Course, refusing to enter horses in any races Thursday or Friday.

The horsemen are angry about a proposal from the management that owns both Laurel and Pimlico tracks to shut down Pimlico as a training facility for about four months during the Baltimore track's off-season.

Owners and trainers who stable year-round at Pimlico voted in the track's kitchen yesterday morning. By a 70-8 margin, they chose not to race at Laurel those two days.

"Our action won't shut down racing at Laurel," said Timothy Boyce, a trainer who conducted yesterday's meeting. "But we just want to send a message to management how angry we are. They have pushed people to desperation."

About 25 percent of the horses running at Laurel are stabled at Pimlico. The boycott will reduce the number of horses racing Thursday and Friday, but there should be enough horses to fill the cards. The track could also run several simulcasts from out-of-state tracks to fill out the programs both days.

The plan to close the track for the four-month period was revealed to a small group of trainers at Pimlico last Saturday by owner Joe De Francis, who said it has become too costly to operate the facility for training year-round.

De Francis said he could save between $400,000 to $500,000 if the track is shut down. Attendance and handle at the Maryland tracks -- Laurel and Pimlico -- have declined about 8 percent this year, after a similar decline in 1991. De Francis said cost-cutting measures are needed.

Under the plan, Pimlico would be closed to the horsemen for about four months, from November through mid-March, when racing is not regularly conducted there. De Francis told the horsemen they would be allotted stall space at Laurel or at the Bowie Training Center.

The proposal says Pimlico would still be open as a simulcast center for fans to bet on races at Laurel. De Francis said it would not decrease the number of racing days allotted to Pimlico, nor would it infringe on the Preakness.

But the horsemen say moving their stables to Laurel or Bowie during the 120-day period will be too costly and disruptive to their operations.

Clark said he would simply take his 10 horses home to his Glyndon farm for the winter and wait until spring to put them back in training.

One prominent trainer, Richard Small, said he would ship his 30-horse string to the Fair Grounds Race Track near New Orleans rather than stable at Laurel for the four-month period.

Another well-known trainer, Bernie Bond, said it will force him to go out of business.

Bond, 76, said that his legs are crippled by arthritis and that he cannot make the daily drive from his home in Towson to Laurel or Bowie. He added that some members of his stable crew do not own cars and that there is not adequate housing for them at either of those tracks.

Small said he probably would have to split his string if he were allotted stalls at Laurel, "and I'm not going to gut my operation to do that," he said. "I have close to 20 people working for me. It's either too long a drive for them to go to Laurel -- some of the men currently live near Pimlico and start feeding my horses at 3:30 a.m. -- or there are no quarters for them [at Laurel]."

De Francis said Maryland is "the only racing circuit in the U.S. that operates three backstretch facilities all year. It's a luxury we can no longer afford."

There are about 2,700 stalls available at the tracks, and nearly 1,000 of them are currently empty, De Francis said. "It makes no sense to keep all three stable areas open. But I want to work with the horsemen and do everything humanly possible to make this transition easier."

He said the dormitories at Pimlico could remain open for the stable employees and that the tracks would operate a commuter bus to Laurel and Bowie.

"The bulk of the cost [at Pimlico] is maintaining the racing surface for training," De Francis said.

The boycott by the Pimlico horsemen is not sanctioned by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We have not met yet to discuss the situation," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the MTHA. "I have no idea how the trainers who are stabled at Laurel or Bowie will react to this. I'm polling our board of directors now to see if they want to set up an emergency meeting, probably on Thursday, to discuss the protest."

Boyce, who is on the board of the MTHA, conducted an informal poll of trainers at Pimlico late last week. Of the 92 trainers with horses at the track, 80 responded.

Forty-two said they would not move their horses to either Laurel or Bowie, and 25 said they would move only to Laurel, not Bowie. That left 11 who said they would be willing to move to either Laurel or Bowie, and two who were undecided.

Boyce said many trainers "are on the verge of going out of business. The recession has decreased the number of people that own horses, and everyone is finding it a lot harder to make a living. I think this has frustrated a lot of people. Some people can't afford spending an extra $50 a week for gas to get to Laurel. But management's attitude is that if someone can't afford the $50, they might as well get out of the business.

"What it comes down to is that management says they can't afford to keep Pimlico open and we can't afford to have it closed," Boyce said. "But there has got to be some way we can get together and find a solution."

Where have all the horses gone?

Horses stabled at Pimlico, Laurel and the Bowie Training Center:

1990January... ... ... 2,148

July... ... ... ... .. 2,493


January... ... ... ... 1,963

July... ... ... ... .. 2,183


January... ... ... ... 1,694

July... ... ... ... .. 1,906

Source: Timothy Capps, director of racing at Laurel and Pimlico

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