11/09/2010 11:51AM

Laurel Park won't close after all, Stronach says


Frank Stronach, the chairman of MI Developments, told the Baltimore Sun on Monday that the company’s Laurel Park in Maryland will not close in 2011, in contradiction to what track officials said last week.

Stronach told the Sun that he learned of the plans to close Laurel Park after reading articles in racing newspapers last week. According to the Sun, Stronach met with Richard Hoffberger, the president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, at the Fasig-Tipton auction in Kentucky on Sunday and vowed to keep Laurel open for its full racing schedule in 2011.

“I don’t believe in making rash decisions,” Stronach told the Sun. “I’d like to sit down with the horse racing board and with the major horsemen to come up with solutions.”

Last week, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have reversed the zoning approvals for a casino planned at a mall near Laurel Park. As a result, Laurel officials said the track would not seek racing dates in 2011, and that Laurel’s sister track, Pimlico Racecourse, would hold a 40-day meet. The plan would eliminate 120 live-racing dates from the Maryland schedule.

“I was really annoyed when I read that,” Stronach said. “That would not be my style. So I was surprised when I saw it on the Daily Racing [Form] that we would be cutting back and just have Pimlico. That’s not the case.”

Officials who represent the state’s horsemen did not return phone calls on Tuesday morning. Neither did Tom Chuckas, the general manager of Laurel and Pimlico, or Dennis Mills, the chief executive of MI Developments.

MI Developments owns half of Laurel and Pimlico. The other half is owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., the huge casino operator, which bought the stake earlier this year. MI Developments had funded the drive to overturn the casino’s zoning approval in an effort to steer the casino license to Laurel.

Chuckas said last week that Laurel Park would no longer be financially viable because of the competition that the casino would bring to the area.

The situation in Maryland is complicated by a state law that directs up to $80 million in casino revenues to the state’s Thoroughbred racing industry regardless of who owns the state’s five casinos. As a result, horsemen and breeders in Maryland are expected to receive approximately $60 million in subsidies a year beginning in 2012, meaning that Pimlico would offer purses of more than $1.25 million a day, tops in the nation, during a 40-day meet.

Chuckas said last week that the track’s owner would present a plan to the state’s racing commission later this month regarding its schedule for 2011. The commission has to award dates by the end of December.