10/07/2005 12:00AM

Commission rejects plan to cut dates


The Maryland Racing Commission on Thursday rejected a plan by Magna Entertainment to cut its racing schedule in 2006 by 69 live racing days, following the recommendation of Maryland's senior assistant attorney general, Bruce Spizler.

Spizler told the commission that the plan, which asked for 129 days of racing at Laurel and Pimlico, including four-day-a-week racing from Jan. 1 through the Belmont Stakes, did not meet the terms of a 2002 agreement between the tracks' operator, the Maryland Jockey Club, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. The majority owner of the MJC is Magna.

The horsemen's legal counsel, Alan Foreman, argued last month that the agreement requires five-day racing weeks through the 2006 Belmont, which will be held June 10. Spizler said he agreed with that interpretation after reading the document and listening to tapes of the 2002 commission meeting at which the pact was approved.

Because of the state's opinion about the agreement, MJC president and chief executive officer Joe De Francis withdrew the proposal at the Thursday commission meeting. The MJC had submitted an amended proposal earlier in the week that had increased the number of live racing days for 2006 to 129, after initially proposing 112.

Track ownership and horsemen now will work on a long-term proposal that outgoing commission chairman Tom McDonough said he hoped "everyone can live with." By law, racing dates have to be approved by Dec. 1.

De Francis told the commission, "We accept your admonishment to work something out with our colleagues and you."

However, Lou Raffetto, the MJC's chief operating officer, voiced disappointment over the rejection of its proposal.

"We think we've proven a four-day race week works," Raffetto said, pointing to increases in field size this September and the popularity of Maryland turf races among bettors nationwide. "If forced to five days, I predict the field sizes will diminish."

Foreman said the horsemen realize there are serious problems, but added, "I will not continue to talk to a wall. We need someone on the other side who will listen." Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the horsemen's association, said, "We will make every effort to work with Magna."

The Thursday meeting ended McDonough's two-year term as chairman. At the end of the meeting, he handed the leadership to John McDaniel, a Howard County horse breeder who has been on the commission for more than 15 years.

McDaniel said he expects meetings between track ownership and horsemen to begin as early as next week.