09/06/2005 11:00PM

Magna plan: Cut racing in Maryland


Magna Entertainment Corp. announced on Wednesday a plan to cut the number of live racing days in Maryland from 200 to 112 in 2006 and renewed its campaign to convince the legislature to legalize slot machines at its two racetracks there, Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

Magna officials met with members of the Maryland Racing Commission on Wednesday morning to discuss the proposed schedule, which calls for a 60-day live meet at Laurel from Jan. 1 to April 15; an 18-day meet at Pimlico that would end with the Preakness on the third Saturday of May; and a 34-day fall meet at Laurel from Nov. 3 through Dec. 30. The schedule was contained in a report called "Plan for Maryland Racing: 2006 and Beyond," in which Magna contends that it cannot remain competitive with racing in neighboring states without slot machines.

Magna took advantage of some help from the state's governor, Robert Ehrlich, who appeared on a Baltimore radio show as the report was being released to make the first public announcement that Magna intended to cut racing days, saying that Magna's difficulties in Maryland were putting "20,000 jobs at risk."

Magna owns a majority share of the Maryland Jockey Club, the owner of Laurel and Pimlico. Racing dates require approval from the racing commission.

J. Mike Hopkins, the executive director of the commission, said that Magna briefed "five or six" commissioners Wednesday morning. He said the reduction would be discussed at a commission meeting Tuesday, but dates are not typically awarded until November.

"If nothing is up to debate, the dates can be awarded sooner," Hopkins said. "But obviously there's going to be a lot of discussion about this."

In the report, Magna officials said that the reduced schedule would allow them to raise purses to be competitive with tracks in Delaware and West Virginia, which have slots. Tracks in Pennsylvania are expected to begin slot-machine operations by the end of 2006.

"The net effect of this plan will be to enhance the viability of Maryland Thoroughbred racing for the immediate future to the benefit of all stakeholders," Dennis Mills, Magna's vice chairman, said in the report. "This is truly a situation where less will be more."

Alan Foreman, the legal counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that Magna officials had scheduled a meeting last week with the horsemen's leaders for late Wednesday afternoon - the same day that Ehrlich appeared on the radio program - without telling the horsemen what was going to be discussed.

"This is obviously all orchestrated," Foreman said. "They told us they had some new information they wanted our input on, so of course we speculated it was something like this. They want to drop the atom bomb without anyone knowing about it first."

The horsemen have an agreement with Magna for a minimum of 220 live racing days a year, but that agreement expires in the middle of 2006, Foreman said. He declined to comment on how horsemen would react to the proposal.

"Regardless of who owns the racetracks, the competitive forces in the region make it impossible if the playing field is not level," Foreman said. "The problem for horsemen and breeders is that we're held hostage. Magna can cut expenses, but we can't."