Less live racing.
It's in the cards for Maryland's thoroughbred horsemen, who have been accustomed for the past 20 years to running on a
year-round circuit with a program of nine or more live races at least five days a week.
But that's no longer the case in this era of multiple-signal simulcasting. It's a development that's been predicted ever since the widespread betting on televised races from out-of-state tracks, coupled with a horse and owner shortage, began to evolve a few years ago.
Horsemen recently received an inkling of what's in store when live races were cut from 47 to 45 a week.
When field size dropped off this spring, so did betting on the Maryland live product. Gamblers made the switch to out-of-state tracks, many of which are so-called "boutique meets," like at Churchill Downs or Gulfstream Park, which run for about three months and card fields of large, bettable races.
The rest of the year simulcasting is offered at those facilities, and the horsemen's part of the take results in huge purses when the abbreviated live meet is run.
That's the future for Maryland.
Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis indicated as much last week when he met with the board of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and asked it to help him come up with a plan for Maryland live racing in 1996.
"We're the only place in America that runs 51 weeks of live racing a year," De Francis told the group, deleting New York from the list "because they even break for five weeks and go to Saratoga.
"If we don't come up with a plan, we're going to find ourselves in the same soup we did this spring. If anything, the horse shortage is going to be more acute next year because there were less horses foaled in 1993 than 1992. It's a numerical fact."
The objective, he added, is to offer high purses that, in turn, attract large fields and increase the appeal of the live product. Horsemen have recently been getting a taste of running for decent money after a 40 percent purse incentive was tacked onto open dirt races that draw eight or more betting interests.
But current betting receipts don't produce enough revenue to maintain that kind of prize money on a yearly basis.
"How do you maintain higher purses? You use simulcasting revenues to bolster them," De Francis said.
That means cutting out live racing and offering simulcasts only, probably for starters, at least one or more months a year.
But when is the best time to take a break, summer or winter, and for how long?
De Francis' initial thoughts are to focus on winter.
"Our best betting months are March, April and May, but paradoxically that's our worst time for attracting horses," he said. "The 2-year-olds aren't racing yet. There's no grass racing. Outfits that left for Florida for the winter aren't back. And when the 2-year-olds come in, invariably they bring sickness with them."
One solution that's been mentioned is to rest Maryland horses during January and February and come out running with fresh stock in the spring.
But that plan is not ideal. Maryland, at least for the past 40 years, has been a winter racing state. At that time of year, there is less competition for fans from other sports and from other area tracks for attracting horses.
But success in the winter, De Francis said, depends on the weather, which is, of course, unpredictable.
The three worst betting months, in order, are September, August and June. So why not close then?
That's when the horse population, with 2-year-olds and grass racing running in full force, is highest.
It's a decision with potentially far-reaching consequences, and it's why De Francis is encouraging input "from anyone who has ideas and wants to talk to me."
He said he hopes to come up with a plan for the 1996 live racing schedule that he can announce by the end of the summer.
One thing for sure, business as usual is a thing of the past.
Exactly how that will affect peripheral areas such as the state's breeding and horse sales industry remains to be seen, especially, as MTHA directors Katy Voss and J.W.Y. "Duck" Martin Jr. pointed out, breeding declines have stabilized and foal numbers are again increasing.
A horse shortage might not be as severe as predicted and drastic measures may do more harm than good.
Cherokee Run skips Dash
Don't look for Cherokee Run, the 1994 Eclipse Sprint champion and De Francis Dash winner, to start in this year's renewal of the race.
"There's just no way we can make it," said the horse's trainer, Frank Alexander, about the $300,000 six-furlong stakes scheduled on July 15 at Laurel Park.
Alexander said that Cherokee Run injured an ankle in a workout for the May 29 Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park "and is just now coming back into training. He hasn't even breezed yet," Alexander said.
Alexander's goals for the horse are a race at Saratoga, the Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont this fall and the Oct. 28 Breeders' Cup Sprint, a race the horse won last year when it was run at Churchill Downs.
Also out of the De Francis lineup is the mare Soviet Problem, winner last year of the Laurel Dash and runner-up to Cherokee Run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
The mare injured a tendon and won't run again this year.
With those two stars missing, the favorite's role could revert to Light The Fuse, the recent Tom Fool Stakes winner and Met Mile runner-up who is based in New York with Maryland's former leading trainer, Dick Dutrow.
However, there has been no indication yet from Dutrow if he is Laurel-bound.
Preliminary entries for the Dash are taken Thursday. Late or supplemental entries are accepted at $15,000 each.
Who Wouldn't aims for Million
When Goldminer's Dream won the Housebuster Stakes last weekend, the 6-year-old moved to the top of the list among leading Maryland sprinters and became the prime candidate to upset out-of-town entries in the De Francis Dash.
Whatever happened to Who Wouldn't, winner of the General George Stakes last February at Laurel and former leader of the local sprint division?
After the General George, the horse's trainer, Donald Barr, said he hoped to make the Dash.
But the horse returned with an "iffy" suspensory ligament. "When it became apparent we couldn't make the Dash, we decided to give him a good long rest," Barr said. "He's on the farm [of co-owner Tom Bowman] in Chestertown."
Barr said Who Wouldn't should resume training by August.
His major objective is the Oct. 14 Maryland Million Sprint at Laurel.
McKay back in action
Maryland Million founder and legendary ABC sportscaster Jim McKay is walking and exercising at his Monkton farm after undergoing elective heart bypass surgery in Baltimore on May 19.
McKay recently told Thoroughbred Racing Communications, Inc. that he is not sure yet if he will work the British Open (July 22-23), but said he "certainly expects to be at the Travers [Stakes]" at Saratoga on Aug. 19 for the ABC telecast.
McKay will be inducted this fall into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in Los Angeles along with Dick Van Dyke, Betty White and the late Michael Landon.