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Purses, races cut at ailing Md. tracks

The Baltimore Sun

With revenues plummeting, the Maryland Jockey Club will cut $3 million from its budget this fall, reducing the purse $2,000 in every race for the rest of the year and trimming the number of races at Laurel Park through Dec. 31.

The Jockey Club and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said they had no choice.

"It's another nail in the coffin for Maryland racing," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.

Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, said Maryland has its "head in the sand" by not helping the racing industry while Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have enabled racetracks to supplement their revenue with slot machines.

In addition to the general reduction in purses, about 10 percent per race, and cutting a to-be-determined number of races, the Jockey Club will eliminate some stakes races - which award the largest winnings - and slash purses for those that are run.

"There is nothing I can do about it," Jockey Club President Lou Raffetto said. "We have to reduce the $3 million shortfall projected for the end of this year. The fast way would be to cut 12 days from the schedule, but the MTHA preferred to cut the races instead of the days to get the same result."

Maryland racing has suffered from a decline in revenue and a migration of thoroughbreds to more lucrative tracks in surrounding states. In January, the Jockey Club saved money by canceling the $500,000 Pimlico Special, a race first run 70 years ago.

The Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, announced yesterday that betting during its spring meet, which ended Saturday, was 7 percent lower than in 2006.

Betting declined even though the spring meet at Pimlico included the Preakness May 19, which drew a record crowd of 121,263 and total wagering of more than $87 million, fourth-best all-time for a Preakness Day. Wagering for the entire spring meet totaled $236.9 million.

Trainers expressed sadness and irritation over the announcement of the cuts.

"This is really going to hurt the owners, who are the ones paying the bills and supporting Maryland racing," trainer Tim Hooper said. "At some point, it's going to reach a point where there just isn't enough money for them to pay their bills. ... With Delaware and Charles Town [in West Virginia] an hour away and purses supposed to be going up again in Philadelphia in July, well, it makes it difficult to stick around."

Hooper and fellow trainer Rodney Jenkins suggested a better move would have been to cut the 10 days of racing scheduled for August at Laurel.

"To me, if you're going to run in a race, why not run for the most you can run for?" Hooper said.

Jenkins said, "I know the [horsemen's association] asked not to have the days cut, but they're listening to three or four trainers on the board and not hearing the majority. No one listens to the other 196 of our 200 trainers.

"It's like a constant whirlwind here, going round and round, promises of help and then no help. ... Maryland is a fine place for horse racing, and I have no complaints with the people who are running the racetracks. But when it gets so bad that we're not making a living ... sooner or later you'll have to reassess."

Richard Hoffberger, president of the horsemen's association, said it was a matter of "picking your poison."

"We could cut purses and stakes or cut days," he said. "The program and goal here has always been to maintain year-round racing. If you cut days, for every day you cut, you erode year-round racing. It was our thought that we didn't want to cut days, so where else was there to go? It wasn't something we wanted to do, but the money is not there, and you can't spend what you ain't got."

Wayne Wright, the association's executive director, said, "Hopefully, something will be done between now and next April to help the industry, or people will get their wish for days to be cut, and it will be more than 10 or 12."

Last month, Raffetto said that if nothing was done to help support the industry, the Jockey Club might cut as many as 40 racing days from this year's 184 planned dates at Laurel and Pimlico (the tracks have lost four days to the weather). The number of dates scheduled this year is 16 fewer than in 2005.

John McDaniel, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said it is important to maintain the integrity of the schedule. Otherwise, he said, "our vital help," the backstretch workers who care for the animals and maintain the barns, could be lost.

"You've got to be careful of the tipping point," he said. "At what point does racing in Maryland not become a full-time business?"

Jim Steele, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said yesterday's news is "just more reason for people to go to other states to race and breed their horses."

"Obviously, most Marylanders would prefer to race and breed their horses in this state," Steele said. "But ... the bottom line is, you run your horse where you can try to earn a living."

Raffetto said that the Maryland Million Day races, which reward offspring of Maryland-based stallions, will not be affected by yesterday's announcement and that the Jockey Club will not cut the $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash. But the purse for every other stakes race that isn't eliminated will be reduced by up to $100,000.

"This is in stone" through Dec. 31, Raffetto said. If there is a special legislative session in Annapolis this fall that deals with the racing industry and results in some kind of supplement for it - slots or otherwise - that help could affect the schedule beginning in January, he said.

Though opponents of slots argue against expanding gambling in the state, Miller said Maryland's projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall next year is all the more reason for the state to legalize slot machines now.

"It's not 'should happen.' It's 'must happen' and 'will happen,'" Miller said. "It has to happen. We've got to move, not just for slots to save racing, but racing and slots to help save the state of Maryland."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrew Green contributed to this article.

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