11/03/2010 12:55PM

Laurel says it won't race next year


Laurel Park will not request any racing dates for 2011 in the wake of the rejection on Tuesday of a measure that would have stalled the development of a casino at a mall 10 miles from the racetrack, Maryland racing officials said on Tuesday.

A suspension of racing at Laurel next year would eliminate approximately 120 cards from the Maryland circuit at a time when the national racing industry is contracting significantly because of long-running problems that have been exacerbated by the recession. Tom Chuckas, the president of Laurel and its sister track, Pimlico Racecourse, said that Thoroughbred racing in 2011 will be limited to a 40-day meet at Pimlico, with live racing dates surrounding the track’s Preakness Stakes, the cash cow that is the second leg of the Triple Crown.

The vow to limit racing to 40 days and convert Laurel to an off-track betting facility is creating a highly unusual possibility for 2012, when the billion-dollar casino at Arundel Mills Mall is expected to be up- and running. Because the state’s law directs up to $100 million in subsidies to the racing industry from slot machines regardless of who operates or owns the state’s five authorized casinos, Maryland’s Thoroughbred racing industry would be in line to receive approximately $50-$60 million in purse subsidies that year, and for the foreseeable future. The funds are statutorily required to be distributed in purses, meaning Pimlico would offer at least $1.25 million a day in purses, tops in the nation by a factor of two.

But Chuckas said that the subsidies would not create an incentive to run live racing dates at Laurel Park or additional dates at Pimlico because the subsidies would not correct the weaknesses underlying the sport, which has suffered from declining handle trends that have accelerated during the past two years. Chuckas also said that MI Developments, which owns Laurel and Pimlico along with Penn National Gaming Inc., would be unable to take advantage of subsidies from slot machines directed to racetracks for capital improvements because the companies do not have the money to match the funds, as required by law.

“It’s not signficiant enough to turn the tide,” Chuckas said, in reference to the purse subsidies and the estimated $20 million subsidy for capital improvements. “There are certain things we’d like to do, but without revenue from racing operations, it’s just not possible.”

Alan Foreman, the legal counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said on Wednesday that the failure of the ballot measure on Tuesday left the Maryland tracks with little choice but to cut days.

“It’s the beginning of the dismantling of the Maryland racing industry as we know it,” Foreman said.

The measure on the Tuesday ballot asked voters whether to uphold zoning approvals for the casino at the Arundel Mills site. Voters upheld the approvals by a margin of 56-44.

MI Developments had funded a petition drive to get the measure on the ballot. According to Maryland news reports, both MI Developments and the developer of the casino, the Cordish Cos., had spent $6 million in support of and opposition to the ballot measure.

MI Developments took over Laurel and Pimlico earlier this year from the company’s bankrupt racing subsidiary, Magna Entertainment Corp. Penn National Gaming bought a 50 percent share in the tracks for $50 million in May, in a gamble that the petition drive would be successful and that the two companies could steer the casino license to Laurel.

Penn National already holds a casino license for a site in Perryville. State law limits companies to one casino license in the state.

Chuckas said that company officials would meet with state legislators over the next several weeks to determine a political strategy for the company in 2011. The law authorizing five casino sites in Maryland was passed as a constitutional amendment, and, coupled with the massive investment promised by Cordish at the site near the track, the prospects for obtaining an additional casino license through the legislative process would seem to be highly improbable.

◗ In other election-day news, Alice Forgy Kerr was narrowly re-elected to the State Senate in Kentucky. The racing industry in Kentucky had supported Kerr’s opponent, Donald Blevins, because of Kerr’s opposition to expanded gambling at Kentucky racetracks without a constitutional amendment.

Republicans in Kentucky have most prominently stood in the way of legislation that would allow slot machines and casino-style games in Kentucky. According to voting results on Wednesday morning, Republicans picked up two seats in the State Senate on Tuesday, which would give them a majority of 22 members, compared to 15 Democrats.

Also, Rick Hiles, the president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, was soundly beaten by the Republican incumbent, Julie Carman Denton, for a seat in the State Senate