Pennsylvania puts moving on Maryland racing minds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two days after Pennsylvania legalized slot machines on July 5, Tom Bowman received a call from an out-of-state client who had kept horses for years at Bowman's farm in Maryland. The man told Bowman to send his five horses to a farm in Pennsylvania.

"He just said, 'I'm sorry, but it doesn't make any sense to have horses in Maryland anymore,' " said Bowman, past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "And you have to agree with him."

Bowman's experience is typical of what has happened since July 5, when Pennsylvania authorized up to 61,000 slot machines at 14 locations, including seven racetracks.

Pennsylvania became the third state surrounding Maryland to legalize slots and to devote a portion of revenue to horse racing. About 12 percent of slots' proceeds will go to bolster Pennsylvania's racing and breeding industries.

Legislative leaders here have failed in a last-ditch effort to place a slots referendum on the November ballot, and Maryland horsemen and breeders have begun what many in racing said was inevitable as long as slots remained forbidden: the exodus of horses, horsemen and horse farms.

Tony Dutrow, one of the few Maryland trainers of horses good enough to win stakes in New York, has bought a house near Philadelphia Park and is selling his Howard County home. Dutrow is leaving his native state and taking his wife, their three children and his 50 high-quality horses with him.

"I'm not blaming the racetrack, and I'm not blaming the horse industry," Dutrow said. "I am absolutely blaming the politicians in Maryland. They have turned their backs on the people of Maryland and the horse industry of Maryland."

Four other well-known Maryland trainers who, along with Dutrow, manage more than 150 horses, and several prominent breeders have abandoned Maryland or are actively pursing ventures in other states, primarily Pennsylvania. And Mario Pino, the state's foremost jockey, might be leaving.

John Scanlan, who trained some of the best-bred horses in Maryland, including the multiple-Grade I-winning Toccet, has relocated his 25 horses to Philadelphia Park. John Salzman, who trained the popular Xtra Heat, winner of more stakes than any filly or mare in North America, is selling his Carroll County farm and considering moving out of state. Salzman and his son, Tim, train 40 horses.

Scott Lake, who led the nation's trainers in wins three of the past four years, cut his Maryland operation to 20 from 50 horses in the past year. He said he'll likely move altogether when slots proceeds begin enriching Philadelphia Park's purses.

Dale Capuano, the leading trainer in Maryland six of the past seven years, has requested 44 stalls at Philadelphia Park. If he gets them, he said, then he'll take his best 44 horses. The 40 or so that remain would be his "cheaper" ones, as he put it. They would fit well with the kind of racing Maryland will be offering, he said.

"No question we'll be the minor league of the mid-Atlantic," Capuano said.

And Pino, 42, who has ridden more winners in Maryland than anyone, is riding this summer at Delaware Park for the first time since launching his career in Maryland 25 years ago. Pino might not return, he said.

'Just standing still'

"I live in Maryland; I'd much rather race here," said Pino, who resides in Ellicott City with his wife and three children. "But other states are moving forward. Maryland's just standing still."

Three major horse farms near Chesapeake City in Cecil County are for sale. Ron Cullis, owner of Plane Tree, said the state's troubled horse industry was a factor in his selling the 112-acre farm. Owners of Muirfield East and Sycamore Hall said they are selling for personal reasons.

Cullis said Maryland's situation has deterred potential buyers looking for a horse farm. "They've decided the likelihood of Maryland's getting slots, ultimately, is there, but they're not prepared to wait it out," he said.

The situation is dire for Maryland's standardbred (harness) industry, which has dwindled steadily. A smaller, more fragile industry than its thoroughbred counterpart, it has already lost many of its best stallions, and its breeding operations have declined precipitously.

From 1995 to 2003, standardbred stallions in Maryland decreased from 41 to 28, mares bred to those stallions dropped from 608 to 266 and Maryland-sired yearlings nominated to run in stakes at Rosecroft Raceway, a year-round harness track, plummeted from 415 to 129.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the horse industry is "an economic engine that needs to be preserved. We need slots. Without them, we're going to keep falling behind. We're frustrated by the lack of progress in finding a solution that is acceptable to everybody."

He said horse racing's impact on the state's economy is anywhere from $650,000 to $800,000 per year. The impact of the horse industry, including sport and pleasure riding, is about $2 billion per year, he said.

Paul E. Schurick, spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and one of his key advisers on slots policy, said he wasn't surprised to learn that Maryland horsemen are deserting the state, considering the economic advantages elsewhere.

"There is a solution to this, and it's a solution within our grasp," Schurick said. "That is expanding gaming at the racetracks. This is a proven tool for helping the horse industry. And the governor remains as committed as ever to doing that.

"Unfortunately, there are politicians in Annapolis who are ready and willing to write off the horse industry in Maryland."

He acknowledged that he was referring to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has stated his opposition to slots and clashed repeatedly with Ehrlich over where to put them, who should reap the benefits and how to vote on them.

Said Busch: "I'm not the monster they make me out to be. I'm a sports fan. Horse racing has a tremendous tradition in Maryland and I'd hate to see it leave. I don't know what the answer is, but it has to start with the industry itself."

He said during his 18 years in Annapolis he's seen the horse industry come to legislators time and again for favors -- and get them. "They can't come up with an organized business plan among them," Busch said.

"I feel badly for the people who've dedicated their life to this," he added. "But the politicians in Annapolis represent a broad spectrum of people. I have policemen and teachers who can't afford to buy a house. How do I go home and tell them we're going to give the horse industry $100 million? I don't have many constituents calling me and saying, 'Let's save horse racing.' "

Although racetracks in West Virginia and Delaware began offering slot machines in 1990 and 1995, respectively, the threat to Maryland racing from Pennsylvania is greater. The massive number of machines and the size of their contribution to racing and breeding will likely make Pennsylvania's horse industry the most lucrative in the region.

Already, Maryland trainers often run their horses at Charles Town in West Virginia and Delaware Park near Wilmington. Resurrected by slot machines, those tracks, once near bankruptcy, now offer certain races with significantly higher purses than comparable races at Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Losing on bonuses

Likewise, Maryland breeders have become increasingly concerned as more and more horse owners send their mares outside Maryland to have their babies. Other states, especially ones with slots, offer rich bonuses to horses born in those states when they race there. The goal of such "bred funds" is to support the breeding industry as well as racing.

Even without slots, Pennsylvania pays about $9 million in bonuses per year compared to Maryland's $4 million. With slots, Pennsylvania's bonus system is expected to soar to $25 million or more.

In addition, purses at Philadelphia Park are projected to rise from the current $135,000 per day to at least $350,000. When compared with Maryland's $150,000 per day and its stagnant bred fund, it's no wonder Pennsylvania is luring Maryland horsemen.

"The wolf is not at the door; he's in the house," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "You're beginning to see an erosion of our horses and our horsemen."

The mid-Atlantic leader a decade ago, Maryland's horse industry stagnated as neighboring states instituted slots, attractive off-track-betting facilities and profitable telephone-betting systems. Instead of agreeing on creative strategies to advance racing, Maryland's track owners and racing leaders squabbled over pieces of their crumbling kingdom.

Maryland horsemen grew increasingly frustrated as their daily labor generated smaller returns. They watched as would-be slots kingpins maneuvered for political favor in Annapolis, and they waited -- for years -- as political leaders kept reaching stalemates.

As the slots issue evolved in Maryland -- beginning with former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's adamant rejection in 1996 -- it became apparent to horsemen that the racing industry was not the driving force.

West Virginia, Delaware and now Pennsylvania legalized slots in large part as a way of rejuvenating racing. Even if slots come to Maryland, horsemen fear that the portion of proceeds devoted to racing will be insufficient to restore the state to regional preeminence.

Died in committee

The slots bills that passed the Senate the past two sessions would have generated about $55 million a year in thoroughbred purses. Added to the $35 million that Pimlico and Laurel Park will pay this year, that would have elevated purses to about $90 million, or about $350,000 daily, about the same as projected at Philadelphia Park. But the bills died in a House committee.

After losing an annual purse subsidy from the state, Pimlico and Laurel Park were forced to eliminate some stakes races, cut racing days and trim purses. They might be forced to cut the race schedule further, perhaps drastically, in coming years.

"You keep looking for a light at the end of the tunnel," said Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. "To say it's frustrating is an understatement."

Sal Sinatra, director of racing at Philadelphia Park, said the track plans to build four new 50-stall barns to accommodate an influx of horsemen, such as Maryland's Capuano. Capuano also said that next year he'll send the 10 mares he owns or manages to Pennsylvania to have their babies.

That has become a familiar refrain. Bowman, former president of the breeders' association, estimates that the number of thoroughbred foals born in Maryland next year will drop by one third to one half.

"That doesn't mean stud farms will completely die," Bowman said. "But the acreage involved, and the people, the goods and the services, they'll continue to diminish. The whole infrastructure of foaling and raising mares is disintegrating in the state. It's the day-to-day activity of keeping farms going that's getting killed."

The strength of Maryland's breeding industry remains its stallion roster, still the region's best. But more and more horse owners who breed their mares to Maryland stallions just as quickly send them elsewhere to live and raise foals.

Carolyn and Ron Green, who own Green Willow, a thoroughbred farm in Westminster, said that 27 foals were born there this year, compared to 80 to 90 three years ago. Then, the Greens had 13 full-time employees. Now, they have seven.

To make ends meet, they plan to expand their business of buying weanlings and reselling them as yearlings. But they don't plan on buying any horses born in Maryland.

"When you're at a regional sale, people don't come under your shedrow asking to see your Maryland-breds," Ron Green said. "They want to see your West Virginia-breds, your Pennsylvania-breds, your New York-breds."

The Greens plan to stay but other Maryland breeders are not. JoAnn and David Hayden, among the most successful breeders in Maryland, plan to buy a small farm in Pennsylvania. Then, David Hayden said, they'll probably sell their Dark Hollow Farm in Upperco, move onto a nearby farm they own and begin sending many of their mares across the state line to have their babies.

Bowman and his partner, Milton P. Higgins III, are trying to buy a horse in California that they planned to stand in Maryland. Since the passage of slots in Pennsylvania, they've decided to rent or buy a farm there to stand the stallion.

"I've been one of the brightest stars in the heavens as far as hanging tough is concerned," said Higgins, who lives in Olney and has immersed himself in Maryland racing since 1968 and breeding since 1976. "But I've completely lost heart, along with everybody else."

Maryland racing's dilemma

Racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia have slot machines, which subsidize racing purses and breeding programs. On July 5, Pennsylvania legalized up to 61,000 slot machines at 14 locations, including seven racetracks. Maryland remains without slots.

Purses at Philadelphia Park, currently $135,000 a day, are projected to rise to $350,000 a day and possibly even to $400,000 to $500,000 a day.

Today, Pimlico will have a purse total of $133,000 for nine races (an average of $14,778 a race). Delaware Park doesn't race today, but yesterday it had a purse total of $204,600 for 10 races (an average of $20,460 a race).

A race at Delaware Park for horses who have never won an allowance race pays $36,000. A comparable race at Pimlico pays $25,000. ... A race at Delaware Park for top maidens paid $34,000. A comparable race at Pimlico pays $24,000.

At Charles Town in West Virginia, a claiming race for horses worth $10,000 pays $27,000. A comparable race at Pimlico pays $12,000.

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