08/05/2008 11:00PM

Laurel cancels graded stakes races


The Maryland Jockey Club has canceled its only graded stakes races - the Grade 1 Frank J. De Francis Dash and the Grade 3 Safely Kept Stakes - during the 17-week Laurel Park meet that begins Sept. 3. The company also announced Wednesday that it will close Pimlico Race Course for training beginning at the end of August.

Officials of the MJC, a company that is owned by the struggling racetrack operator Magna Entertainment Corp., cited revenue shortfalls and a purse overpayment for the suspension of the stakes and the closing of Pimlico for training. The MJC's two tracks have struggled for years to maintain handle figures for a variety of reasons, including competitive pressures from racetracks in surrounding states that have used subsidies from slot machines to lure horses.

Earlier this year, all-sources handle on races during Pimlico's spring meet, which included the running of the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes, dropped 17.9 percent. At the earlier Laurel winter meet, handle dropped 20 percent. Revenues from handle are used to fund purses.

The cuts were announced in advance of a scheduled November referendum that will ask voters to approve slot machines at four undetermined locations in the state. If the referendum passes, Laurel Park is expected to be named as one of the casino locations in the enabling legislation. Pimlico is expected to be left out, in favor of a stand-alone casino in downtown Baltimore, where Pimlico is located.

Laurel Park is scheduled to begin an abbreviated 10-day meet Friday, with a 3:30 p.m. post. That meet will not be affected by the cuts, MJC officials said, but the racing schedule only includes a pair of $50,000 stakes for statebred horses.

The De Francis Dash is one of only three Grade 1 races in Maryland. In addition to the Dash and the Grade 3 Safely Kept, the Laurel Futurity and Selima Stakes have also been suspended, the MJC said.

Money allocated to the purses of the suspended stakes will instead be redistributed to statebred or state-sired stakes, the MJC said. The Maryland Million, an Oct. 4 card for state-sired horses, will not be affected by the cuts.

"This is terribly disappointing, but these are serious times," Tom Chuckas, president of the MJC, said in a statement. "We remain hopeful that the playing field between Maryland and our neighbors to the west, north, and east will be leveled."

The MJC has frequently announced purse cuts or suspended stakes races prior to legislative sessions in which the legalization of slot machines has been a topic.

Pimlico Race Course is typically open for year-round training. After the track closes for training on Aug.o31, the MJC will ship the Pimlico horses to the backstretches of Laurel or the Bowie Training Center, which also is owned by the MJC. The MJC will pay for horses based at Bowie to ship in to races at Laurel, the company said.

The 10-day Laurel meet that begins Friday ends an eight-week gap in live racing in Maryland. During the gap, many horses in the region shipped to Colonial Downs in Virginia for that track's summer meet.

The nine-race opening-day card includes three turf races. The card drew 83 horses, not including main-track-only entries and also-eligibles.

The feature race on the card is a $30,000 allowance at one mile on the dirt. Thirteen horses were entered for the race, which will go as the eighth.

Post time for the meet, which runs through Aug. 21, will be 3:30 p.m. Eastern on weekdays and 1:10 p.m. Eastern on weekends. The track will be dark on Mondays and Tuesdays, but will be open for simulcasting.

Following the close of the Laurel meet, racing will shift to the Timonium fairgrounds in Maryland for a seven-day meet. Racing will then return to Laurel for the 17-week meet beginning Sept. 3.