Horsemen enjoy Laurel - at least for this meet

The Baltimore Sun

Trainer Ben Feliciano, who stables his horses at Laurel Park, is happy to see racing return to the track today, despite what anybody says.

"I've raced horses at just about every track in surrounding states this summer," Feliciano said. "And I'm glad to be back where the grooms can just walk the horses out of the stalls and be at the racetrack.

"But people have been laughing at me a lot. 'How do you stay there?' they say. 'You're in a dying state.'"

Feliciano sighs. The way things are at the moment, with the horse racing industry bolstered at most tracks near Maryland by slots revenue, he can't argue.

"But I have a home here," said the trainer, who tied with Dale Capuano for the Timonium trainers title with four wins after winning it outright last year. "It's tough to leave. ... I like it here. But I am debating it even now. If I don't see us getting some kind of help by next spring, I may very well have to leave."

Feliciano's emotional turmoil is common at Laurel Park, where the Maryland horsemen will convene today for a 68-day stand. The fall meeting will be run Wednesday through Saturday afternoons through Dec. 29. First post is 1:10 p.m.

The meet, which has had its calendar pinched by a $3 million shortfall in the purse account, will have purses cut across the board in regular races. There also will be 11 fewer stakes races, and purses will be cut in four other stakes, including the Frank J. DeFrancis Memorial Dash, which will pay $50,000 less than a year ago.

Stakes on Maryland Million Day, a celebration of Maryland-sired horses, fare somewhat better, with purses in four of the 12 stakes races getting increases in an effort to attract the best horses to the Classic, Turf, Lassie and Nursery stakes.

Fans also have the prospect of seeing jockey Mario Pino, who has ridden his entire career here since finishing as runner-up for the 1979 Eclipse award for top apprentice, achieve his 6,000th win.

This year Pino, 45, rode his first Kentucky Derby horse, second-place finisher Hard Spun, and 10 days ago rode him to the horse's first Grade I victory in the $250,000 King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga. It was Pino's 5,955th victory.

"I plan on riding some before the Delaware meet wraps up," said Pino, who will ride at Delaware Park through Nov. 4. "It looks like 6,000 will likely happen at Laurel."

Which is fitting, given that Pino is the jockey who has the most wins at Maryland tracks.

Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Lou Raffetto envisions full race fields and strong competition, but expectations for the future here remain hazy at best.

Raffetto tried an experiment during Laurel Park's 10-day summer meet, cutting the takeout to 10 percent, a move that effectively put 12 percent more cash into the pockets of winning bettors.

Raffetto wagered that the move would result in more betting and larger handles. But his experiment returned mixed results. Comparing apples to apples over the same five-day period of a year ago, Raffetto found the track's exported signal was up $65,000, but in Maryland the results were "discouraging," down $21,000 a day.

"I don't know what it means," Raffetto said.

Raffetto said he will not follow up on the 10 percent takeout this fall, but he would like to see someone else "in a better financial position" do so. "A track with slots, that has a surplus of money for purses," Raffetto said, and could divert some of that cash into marketing the smaller takeout idea and thus fertilize the betting pool.

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