North East -- The Maryland Racing Commission listened to an update on the industry at its monthly board meeting yesterday and lamented the previously announced $3 million cut in purses and stakes that will be put into place beginning in August, when racing resumes at Laurel Park.
Then the commission approved the request by the Maryland Horse Breeders Association for another cut - in bonuses paid to Maryland-breds that win races at the state's tracks. The bonuses - paid to a winning horse's breeder, to the owner of the horse's sire and to the horse's owner - are funded by 1.1 percent of the tracks' live handle. With the handle down, the breeders association found it necessary to reduce the bonuses.
The breeders' portion of the bonus is being reduced from 13.5 percent of a race's purse to 10 percent, and the stallion owners' portion will be reduced from 7.75 percent to 5 percent. The owners' share will remain at 10 percent for the next six months, after which the breeders association will reassess.
"We're dependent on revenue just like the tracks and horsemen are," said Crickett Goodall, executive director of the breeders association. "We have to make adjustments, too. We don't want to get in a situation where we've overpaid. These are just bad times."
Goodall told the commission that, while stallion bookings are holding, the number of mares in the state continues to dwindle, which means farms that earn their living by boarding horses are suffering.
"We haven't lost any farms yet," she said. "We have people who really want to hold on."
"You mean we're losing our horse population horse by horse instead of farm by farm?" commission chairman John McDaniel asked.
"Yes," said Goodall, and then pointed to Bonita Farm in Darlington, where the Boniface family, one of Maryland's traditional horse breeding families, is trying to find alternative ways to earn a living to keep its breeding farm operating.
"The breeding has been way off because of the slots in other states," said Billy Boniface, a former MHBA president, talking about how Maryland-bred horses are becoming less valuable as the state's purse and bonus money shrinks compared with that of surrounding states. "But we're still managing to do the best we can, and we're trying to help ourselves by using part of our farm for other business opportunities. We're putting in two acres of grapes and 2,000 Christmas trees."
Meanwhile, two commission members, former chairman Tom McDonough and Alvin Akman, are leaving because their four-year terms expired at yesterday's meeting. Akman gave a short farewell speech that McDaniel said he hoped was recorded so it could be given to the state legislature, which decides issues of racing subsidies and slots.
"It should be required listening," McDaniel said of Akman's comments.
Akman said: "Horse racing has survived here for 100 years, but we're at the crest of the mountain and it will be a long, long slide down the other side if nothing happens in the next session. They [legislators] don't see us in the same light as other sports. One legislator asked me, 'How much will the track owner get if slots are approved?' Where was that guy when they built the stadium for the Orioles owner and the football stadium for the Ravens owner?
"Those are part-time sports. We function year-round. Neither of those sports contribute the jobs and taxes this sport does, and yet they have a problem seeing and rewarding that."
McDonough and Akman's seats will be taken by new appointees Lou Ulman, a former commission member, and Frank Favazza, a retired building contractor.