09/07/2011 11:41AM

Laurel Park opens fall meet; DeFrancis Memorial Dash back on schedule

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The U.S. horse racing industry is stuck in a prolonged funk, but in Maryland, stakes races have been restored to the schedule and purses are up as Laurel Park prepares to open its 68-day meet Friday.

After a one-year hiatus, the $150,000 Frank J. DeFrancis Memorial Dash is back at Laurel, scheduled for Oct. 22. The six-furlong race, which was once one of the most important sprint stakes in the United States, will be run as an ungraded race this year for the first time since 1991. The race was first run in 1990.

The DeFrancis is one of eight stakes races that were restored to the Laurel fall meet schedule this year due to improvements to Laurel’s financial condition that are largely unrelated to racing. The track, which is owned by The Stronach Group, a private company formed earlier this year, began receiving subsidies from slot machines at casinos in the state late last year, and earlier this year, the legislature approved a bill allowing the track to use some of the subsidies for its operating costs.

As a result, purses at the meet will average $185,000 a day, up from $160,000 a day during the fall meet last year, and additional increases might be on the way, depending on how business holds up, according to Tom Chuckas, the track’s president.

“Right now, we’ve got two sources of revenue in Maryland,” Chuckas said. “So we’ll monitor what we get from pari-mutuel wagering as we go along, and we’ll monitor what we get from slot machines as we go along, and hopefully we’ll have some good news to report.”

This year’s meet will be the 100th to be held at Laurel Park, located halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The track is scheduling several promotions around the centennial, including a mug giveaway Saturday that can be used for $2 beers on Saturdays throughout the meet. An official centennial celebration will be held Oct. 15.

In total, Laurel will hold 27 stakes races during the meet, up from 19 last year. Racing will be conducted in September on a Wednesday through Saturday schedule – Sunday racing during the fall competes with NFL football – but Tuesdays will be added to the schedule beginning in October.

The Maryland Million, which includes 11 stakes races restricted to Maryland-sired horses, is scheduled for Oct. 1. Behind Preakness Day at Laurel’s sister track, the Maryland Million is the second most popular race card on the Maryland circuit.

Despite the restorations of the stakes and the increase to purses, Maryland racing still faces challenges, as most racing circuits do, but Chuckas said he hopes that good weather, a focus on turf racing, and improved field size this year stabilizes pari-mutuel handle. Beginning in October, the track will have to do without its largest in-state simulcasting site, the Cracked Claw restaurant, which will be closing its doors.