Any money earned by one of the heavily favored horses in Saturday's Maryland Million may be donated to provide new housing for employees working in racetrack stables.
Philanthropist-horse owner Jim Ryan has issued a unique Maryland Million challenge:
He will donate whatever prize money his 3-year-old colt Awad wins toward operating expenses for a proposed $2.2 million backstretch dormitory complex if other owners and trainers or industry organizations match Awad's earnings with their own gifts.
The horse, who is sired by the Ryan-bred Belmont Stakes winner Caveat and is the recent Grade I winner of the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park, is expected to be odds-on choice over Dancing Douglas and a dozen other horses in the $100,000 Joseph A. Bank Clothiers Maryland Turf Stakes.
"If he should win [first-place purse money is $60,000], we are talking about $120,000 [including matching contributions] being donated to the project," Ryan said. "And I will contribute whatever he does earn if he finishes second, third or fourth. I don't want to pressure anybody into doing this. I can understand people needing the money and taking care of their family first. But there are a number of owners who wouldn't miss $10,000 out of a winning purse."
Ryan, who made a fortune building homes, has been active in racetrack philanthropy projects through the Ryan Family Foundation.
Through similar matching-fund plans, the foundation has contributed millions of dollars to racetrack alcohol- and drug-abuse programs.
Ryan, along with the Enterprise Foundation, county and state government and Laurel/Pimlico management, is a guiding force in a new not-for-profit organization called Laurel Quality of Life, Inc., which will announce plans today to start building "Laurel Commons," a three-building complex on Brock Bridge Road adjacent to the Laurel Race Course stabling area where racetrack workers could live.
Funding for the project is coming from a number of sources including state and federal government, the track itself and from Anne Arundel County, which is contributing $300,000 toward water and sewerage treatment. Once financing is arranged next month, ground-breaking will take place in mid-January and construction is expected to be completed by early next summer. Racehorse owner Dick Jenkins owns the contracting firm that is building the complex.
There are currently six dormitories on the Laurel backstretch that house 150 to 200 grooms, exercise riders and hotwalkers. The housing is provided free of charge, but the conditions compare to the poorest sections of inner-city neighborhoods.
Yesterday, Jim Speers, who works for trainer King Leatherbury, invited a guest into his room. Speers keeps the room extremely clean, but the living space is about a 14-by-14-foot concrete cell, smaller than a horse's boxstall, and it fronts into a lead pony barn, about 10 feet away. There is no bathroom, which means to take a shower, Speers must walk outside two barns away. There are no cooking or laundry facilities.
One groom, Gene Marshall, said, in comparison, the design of the new dorms "looks like a Comfort Inn."
There will be accommodations for 108 people in the three buildings. Two persons will occupy each room, which will have a full shower bathroom. There will be a community center with a kitchen and laundry room, and each dorm will have a paid resident counselor, either a trained social worker or track professional. The dorms will be heated and air-conditioned.
To create a sense of pride in the building, each resident will be required to pay a rental fee of $40 per month.
"This [the dormitory rendering] looks great," said Paul Vongunten, a former exercise rider who works for trainer Ronnie Cartwright as a groom. "But they've been talking about this for three years. Do you think it will really happen?"
There is some question among industry officials whether racetracks should be involved in housing employees of owners and trainers. It perpetuates a paternalistic attitude toward workers when they could be better off earning higher salaries and then be able to afford housing away from the track, some experts say.
Laurel/Pimlico is donating the land and will pay for utilities, maintenance and security.
What: Eighth running of the Maryland Million, a 12-race card restricted to the offspring of Maryland stallions. Purses total $1 million.
Where: Laurel Race Course
Post time: 12:30 p.m.
Entries: The fields for the 12 races are drawn at noon today in the Ruffian Room at Laurel.