09/02/2007 11:00PM

Local horsemen stay put for now


Laurel Park in Maryland begins its 68-day fall and winter meet on Wednesday facing new competitive threats to the north, where slot machines are fueling big purses at old and new racetracks in Pennsylvania.

That competition, however, has not kept horsemen away from Laurel's opening-day card. Ninety-five horses have been entered for the 10-race card, which includes four turf races. Most are from trainers who are regulars on the Maryland circuit, including King Leatherbury, Scott Lake, Graham Motion, Gary and Dale Capuano, and Ferris Allen.

Lou Raffetto, the chief operating officer of Laurel and its sister track, Pimlico Race Course, said he believes that new opportunities for horsemen in Pennsylvania will not have a significant impact yet on Laurel's racing cards. The reason, Raffetto said, is that Laurel's purses cannot compete with those at Presque Isle Downs, the new racetrack in Erie, Pa., that is using six months of slot-machine revenue to fund $500,000 in purses each day for its inaugural 25-day meet.

"It's going to have a minimal effect," Raffetto said. "It's really only one more track that a guy in Philadelphia or Delaware can look at to run. We're really not that reliant on shippers here during the fall meet. Our Maryland guys really support this meet."

The top purse on Wednesday's card at Laurel is $28,000, for 2-year-old maiden fillies. A 2-year-old filly allowance on Wednesday's eight-race card at Presque Isle Downs is offering $42,000.

Racing during Laurel's meet will be conducted on a Wednesday through Saturday schedule, with first post at 1:10 p.m. Eastern. Sundays can be difficult days for racetracks in the fall and winter because of the dominance of the National Football League.

The meet's highlight will be the Oct. 13 Maryland Million card, which offers 12 races restricted to horses sired by Maryland stallions. The Nov. 24 card will feature the Grade 1 Frank De Francis Memorial Dash and three supporting stakes.

Earlier this year, Laurel slashed purses on its stakes schedule in order to make up an anticipated $3omillion shortfall in the purse account. The impact of the cut is being felt most markedly on the De Francis card, where four stakes races were cancelled.

Looming over the Laurel meet is the expectation that Maryland legislators will be called into a special session this fall or winter to deal with a budget shortfall. Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated that he supports legalizing slots at racetracks, and racing officials are hopeful that a bill will be passed during the session that brings the increasingly common gambling machines to the state's parimutuel facilities.

"The hope of the horsemen and everyone involved in the Maryland racing industry is that we will get some sort of slots bill in the fall or early spring," Raffetto said.