Talks to determine Maryland's horse racing schedule moving slowly

Maryland horsemen learned Monday afternoon they'd have to wait longer for a definitive answer on the state's racing dates for the 2012 season.

"We've had productive meetings," said John McDaniel, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission who has spearheaded the discussions. "Both parties have entered the dialogue with desire to reach an agreement."

But no agreement has been reached, and the Maryland Jockey Club has not put in a request for any racing dates. Tracks often ask for 365 days as a way to meet the Dec. 1 deadline and request specific live dates later. But no request was made, the commission's executive director Mike Hopkins said, "because McDaniel said they wanted to work through the negotiation process first."

Hopkins added the jockey club could make the request for the year-long calendar in the form of a letter prior to the Dec. 1 deadline, if an agreement hasn't yet been reached.

"The commission certainly wants to resolve this before the end of the year," Hopkins said.

The trouble over racing dates came as a surprise to the commission and to the horsemen last month, because they felt a three-year agreement for 146 days each in 2011, 1012 and 2013 had been reached when Gov. Martin O'Malley helped the racing industry agree to a deal last December. He signed legislation to divert up to $6 million annually in slots revenue — which had formerly been allotted for racetrack improvements — to help the MJC meet its daily operational costs in exchange for what appeared to be a set schedule during those years.

But at last month's commission meeting, MJC president Tom Chuckas said the group's parent company, Stronach Group, did not want the state's money and hoped to alter the proposed schedule to one that would allow it to stay financially viable without assistance. It proposed running a short spring meet at Pimlico, home of the Preakness, and offered to lease Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Since then, McDaniel and fellow commission member Bruce Quade have moderated numerous meetings between the sides.

"We're making good progress," McDaniel said. "But the discussions are very delicate and sensitive, as you can imagine, when you're talking about the horsemen and also the future financial viability of the Maryland Jockey Club. I guess I'm pleased to report we're making progress. Are we there yet, with a final agreement? No. We have some process issues, some sign-off issues on the table on both party's parts, and I'm hopeful that will come about."

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, rejected the idea of leasing the tracks last month. Monday, he said he did not want to discuss the issue in the media, but told the commissioners and those present, "The two biggest issues continue to be days and stalls. That's the discussion."

Afterward, Chuckas said, "I'm hopeful," when asked how the meetings were going. Hoffberger said he was, too.

"What I'm really feeling good about," said McDaniel, "is the sincerity of both parties. It's crunch time. Everyone knows they have to hang together or they'll hang separately. There is a good spirit of cooperation, but both parties have to feel they have a viable opportunity to survive. You know it so often happens that way in negotiations. They almost always seem to come down to the last minute."

On other issues: the commission agreed to have the results of drug tests on horses reviewed by a medical director, who will follow the established protocol for specific drugs to determine if it is a positive or negative test before forwarding it to the stewards for punitive action.

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