The two new members of the Maryland Racing Commission are bullish on slot machines and bullish on Maryland racing. Both say they want to help re-energize the stagnant industry in the state.
Tom McDonough, 55, a Towson lawyer, and Al Akman, 72, a longtime horse owner, plan to attend their first meeting Wednesday when the commission convenes at noon at Laurel Park.
They were appointed last week by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to replace Ellen Moyer and Paige T. Davis, whose terms had expired. Ehrlich appointed McDonough chairman, replacing Lou Ulman, who will remain on the board.
"It's not going to be a long learning curve," McDonough said. "I really need to talk to some people and review some things."
He has been meeting with commission officials and reading documents, trying to catch up on matters pending before the board. The most pressing is perhaps Magna Entertainment Corp.'s promise to spend $5 million on track improvements by Aug. 31.
"I do have some preconceived notions, but I'm not prejudging anything," McDonough says. "I'm going to try to get their cooperation, but there are going to be issues where there'll be disagreement."
He said the upcoming release of Seabiscuit, the movie, gives racing an opportunity "to get people to stick their toe in the water. I can't believe anybody would disagree with that. How we get there, whether it's cooperatively or contentiously, remains to be seen."
McDonough said he has been a part-owner of four horses, but has no ownership interests now. He favors slot machines at tracks because he has seen what they've done for tracks in Delaware and, especially, West Virginia.
"It comes down to the dollars," he said. "Whether you're talking about purses, field size or quality, racing's more interesting when there's more money there."
Akman also favors slots at tracks. He has owned part or all of several hundred horses since 1971. He owns more than 40 now. The ones in training are with Tony Dutrow at Laurel.
"All I want for Maryland is better racing," said Akman, a marketing consultant and former union executive representing racetrack workers.
"I'm extremely strong on the slots issues, because the competition is killing us. If Pennsylvania and New York get slots, then where's Maryland racing going to be?"
Business as usual
Although Mike Gill said his racing operation is for sale, the nation's winningest owner shows no signs of slowing down. He's hired California trainer Nick Canani to take over his 60 horses at Bowie, and he's continued claiming horses even after saying in the spring he was getting out of the business.
Gill said he tried not claiming horses, but what happened was he lost the horses to claims that were paying the bills. He decided to carry on business as usual, while putting his training farm in Pennsylvania and 250 horses on the market.
"I just can't sell them piecemeal or else I'll run the business into the ground," he said. "If you're not active, then you're in trouble."
A resident of New Hampshire, Gill said someone signed a 30-day option to buy his operation for $17 million, but that the person, whom Gill declined to identify, failed to execute the option.
"I'll sell, but I'm not going to create a fire sale," he said. "If it doesn't happen, then I'll continue running the operation."
Gill said he has 60 horses at Bowie, which will soon be trained by Canani. Gill's current trainer at Bowie, Gamaliel Vazquez, will work as Mark Shuman's assistant on the farm and then this fall will take 40 horses to South Florida.
Jerry Robb continues training Gill's 40 horses at Laurel. Gill also has horses at Charles Town and on farms in Florida and Maryland.
On July 11, Gill's Saranoia was euthanized after breaking a leg in a race at Monmouth Park. Gill had paid $800,000 for the strapping son of Seattle Slew, the most he has ever paid for a horse.
He said he knows people accuse him of everything from running sore horses to using illegal drugs to impulsively firing trainers and jockeys. He vehemently denies each accusation.
Of Saranoia, Gill said: "He was 100 percent sound. An $800,000 horse I'm going to run sore?"
Leatherbury needs two
Colonial Downs will end its 30-day meet Tuesday and Laurel Park will opens its 22-day summer meet Thursday with appealing story lines.
King Leatherbury, a Maryland fixture, is two wins away from No. 6,000. Only two trainers, Dale Baird and Jack Van Berg, have won that many.
Assuming Leatherbury reaches the mark, the Maryland Jockey Club has designated Aug. 9 as the day to "toast and roast the King." Eight races will be named after Leatherbury's favorite horses, and Keith Mills from Channel 2 will conduct a "roast" of Leatherbury between races.
Also, Magic Weisner, runner-up in last year's Preakness, might launch his comeback Thursday after his near-fatal bout with West Nile virus. Nancy Alberts, his owner, trainer, breeder and exercise rider, has brought him back slowly and selected a seven-furlong race for his return.
"The vet told me a long time ago he might not come back as good as he was," Alberts says. "But last month he started acting like Magic. He's been working slow, but each time he's worked a little better. Maybe in another month he'll start running like Magic."
At the wire
Colonial Downs held its premier day last Saturday - Virginia Derby day - and broke wagering records. Today, Delaware Park will conduct its signature event, the $750,000 Delaware Handicap and four other stakes. Yesterday, it ran the $500,000 Delaware Oaks and two other stakes.
Purses attract horses, and the DelCap lured the Mark Hennig-trained Summer Colony (last year's winner), the Ken McPeek-trained Take Charge Lady and the Bobby Frankel-trained Wild Spirit. Those horses will be ridden by John Velazquez, Shane Sellers and Jerry Bailey, respectively. ...
Jerry Frutkoff, the veteran track photographer at Pimlico and Laurel Park, has been readmitted to the University of Maryland Medical Center with kidney disease. He spent the past week at home in Mt. Airy but had to return to the hospital Thursday for treatment. Frutkoff, 81, expects to be back home in a few days.