The Maryland Racing Commission voted yesterday not to intervene in the Maryland Jockey Club's decision to close the Pimlico stables for the winter. The 6-2 vote set off a flurry of angry responses from horsemen aimed primarily at Tom McDonough, commission chairman.
Appointed this summer by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., McDonough led the commission's vote not to involve itself in the controversial decision about Pimlico and not to hear testimony from dozens of horsemen who attended the meeting at Laurel Park. Afterward, trainers and leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association were livid.
"Tom McDonough is an extension of the Ehrlich administration, and he's clearly an ally of the owners and operators of Pimlico and Laurel," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the MTHA, which represents trainers and horse owners. "He showed a total disregard for the horsemen. He was insensitive and appeared to have no concern about acting in the best interest of Maryland racing.
"I wasn't surprised. I thought he was going to be a bad chairman. But I didn't think he was going to be this bad."
The Maryland Jockey Club announced at the end of September its intention to close the barn area at Pimlico from Nov. 29 to March 1. Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said the closing would save $600,000 to $700,000. Horses would be transferred for the three months to the MJC's other training centers at Bowie and Laurel.
Objecting to the closing were trainers, especially those who would have to move from Pimlico or who would have to give up stalls at Bowie and Laurel to accommodate the temporary consolidation. They appealed to the racing commission for intervention and came to yesterday's meeting to state their case.
However, McDonough argued that the commission should not interfere in what he viewed as a business decision by a track owner. He said the commission's job is to regulate racing, not to dictate business practices.
"I think there's a distinction between regulating a business and running a business," he said. "We step over the line if we insert ourselves in the business practices of the licensee."
The commission voted 6-2 to back McDonough. Alvin Akman, Ernest J. Colvin, John P. McDaniel, Erwin Mendelson and Terry Saxon sided with the chairman. John Franzone and Lou Ulman voted in the minority. They said the commission should hear testimony before deciding whether to intervene in the Pimlico dispute.
McDonough adjourned the meeting immediately after the vote. Lester Rao, a blacksmith at Bowie, approached McDonough and shouted: "You should step down. If you've got any conscience, you should step down."
Then Rao addressed the entire commission.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves," he hollered, "every single one of you."
Alan Foreman, attorney for the horsemen's association, seemed astounded that he and others had not been allowed to testify.
"This is the first time - and I go back to '79 - that I've seen the commission absolutely duck an issue and not permit a discussion," Foreman said.
McDonough left quickly after the meeting, but he later said he is not anti-horsemen. In fact, he said, he plans to argue in Annapolis that purses for horsemen, not profits for track owners MJC and Magna Entertainment Corp., should be the top priority if slot machines come to Maryland.
"I just thought in this case - and the majority of the commissioners agreed with me - that the closing of Pimlico [barns] for three months was a business call we shouldn't jump into," McDonough said. "I know the horsemen disagree. But if they think I'm in Magna's pocket, they're wrong."