Don't expect Maryland thoroughbred tracks to cut back from a five- to four-day live race week.
Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis addresses the board of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association tonight to explain why he wants to Laurel notebook
experiment later this summer with the four-day race week.
But "there's no sentiment among horsemen for a change," said MTHA president Richard Hoffberger. "If it comes up to a vote, it will not pass."
Horsemen must consent to the four-day week for it to be instituted by management.
De Francis said he is aware of the horsemen's feelings, "but I at least want to talk to the full board, and explain my reasoning. There seems to be a perception that I want to hurt live racing and turn these tracks into full-time simulcast centers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is I couldn't do that if I wanted to. The state grants me this franchise in order to support an industry employing 20,000 people. What's done must be done to benefit all of these people. What we are trying to do is create a program that is economically viable on a year-round basis."
These are the principal components of the De Francis four-day plan, necessitated, he says, by a shortage of horses and the fans' desire to bet on larger fields:
* Thursday would be dark (as well as Monday and Wednesday) for live races. But the tracks would be open on Wednesday and Thursday for out-of-state simulcasts.
* On weekdays, Laurel/Pimlico would run 10 live races (instead of nine) and 12 live races on weekends (instead of 10). That means 44 live races, instead of 47, each week. "Our largest handle is on the weekends, so we'd pick up four extra races then," De Francis said. "The idea is to boost handle when we have the most fans here and give them larger fields to bet on on those days." In the meantime, revenues from simulcast handles on Wednesdays and Thursdays would be used to boost purses.
"This is something Churchill Downs has done brilliantly," De Francis said. "They've cut back on their number of live racing days each year from 90 to 70 days and then boost their purses the rest of the year through simulcasting. But, unlike us, they don't operate year-round."
* "We'd try the experiment during August and September, which is our slowest time of the year," De Francis added. "That way if we had to do it next winter when we have our smallest horse population, we'd know whether it worked or not and wouldn't have to try it as some sort of desperation move."
Hoffberger said he and other horsemen understand De Francis' logic. "But we really wanted 50 live races a week. We compromised and took 47 [about three months ago], so if we cut back to 44, it means a loss of more than just three races per week," he said.
He added that horsemen need to have as many opportunities to run their horses in Maryland "when they are fit and in peak form. Less live racing means that window of opportunity shrinks. The trainers would find a race out of state to run their horse when it's right, instead of running it here."
Ritchie Trail comes out ahead
Ritchie Trail came from off the pace and defeated Green Darlin by 2 3/4 lengths yesterday in the $54,450 Davona Dale Handicap. Pacesetter Star Minister tired and finished third. The winner was ridden by Steve Hamilton.
A decline of 9 percent in handle and 3 percent in attendance at the current Monmouth Park meet in Oceanport, N.J., has prompted management there to cut purses by 5 percent. . . . Even though the 98-degree heat was oppressive yesterday, track veterinarian David Zipf said there were no heat-related incidents involving the horses during the Laurel races. . . . Ritchie Trail's earnings of $32,670 yesterday in the Davona Dale Handicap pushed the earnings of the Allen's Prospect offspring to more than $1 million this year. . . . Fans at all Maryland wagering outlets bet more than $74,000 on the harness card from The Meadowlands yesterday, more than double the usual handle on the afternoon standardbred simulcasts from Balmoral, Foxboro or Yonkers raceways.