Bad winter weather that caused Laurel Park to cancel four of its scheduled 75 race days during its winter meet contributed to disappointing meet-ending numbers released yesterday by Magna Entertainment Corp.
"We saw it coming as the meet progressed," said Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, as he watched a race during Pimlico Race Course's opening yesterday. "The weather was pretty brutal ... during February, and March and we had to cancel closing day."
During the winter meet, the total wagering handle dropped to $291.8 million from last year's $321 million, a decline of 9.1 percent. Attendance also fell, from 413,669 last year to 351,998, a 14.9 percent tumble.
While the in-state handle dropped 10.8 percent, the out-of-state handle also fell 7.8 percent from $183.1 million to $168.8 million.
Raffetto attributed the decline in out-of-state wagering to increased competition for simulcasting signals and a decline in the size of fields at Laurel Park because of a change in immigration laws that made it difficult for trainers to have enough workers to keep their usual strings of horses at the Maryland tracks.
"We did not get our signal into California as much as we did last year," Raffetto said. "A year ago, they'd take three or four of our races near the end of the day. Tracks tend to take signals from warmer climates because they're less likely to run into weather-related problems. ... And this year Fair Grounds [in New Orleans], which did not race last year [after hurricane damage], raced this year."
Raffetto said he believed the smaller fields were a result of a lack of help to care for the animals.
Trainer Hamilton Smith said the number of horses he is able to manage at the track dropped from 55 to as few as eight.
"Right now, I'm caring for 28 horses with three grooms," Smith said. "Me, my assistant and my son are making up the difference. I have 30 horses waiting to come, but you can only do so much."
Smith entered five horses yesterday at Pimlico but scratched four of them when the two scheduled turf races were switched to dirt. He wasn't the only one to do so, as trainers scratched 15 horses from the two races because of the change, accounting for half of the 30 that were scratched overall.
Though the grass course looked beautiful, having benefited from an unusually wet spring, the footing was too soft for good racing yesterday.
"While I'm not thrilled by our overall Laurel numbers," Raffetto said, "from March 31 when we got back on the turf course, we started to turn a corner. We saw an upward trend that we hope will continue when we get on the turf course here."
Note -- Pimlico's opener drew 5,253 fans. ... Trainer John Rigattieri had three wins - Marty's Joia in the first race, Sora in the third and Love the Dawn in the fifth. ... Jockey Anna "Rosie" Napravnik, recovering from a broken back, exercised three horses yesterday. She said her back "felt great" but didn't set a timetable for her return to racing.