09/07/2005 11:00PM

Maryland breeders upset about plan to cut dates

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Representatives of breeders in Maryland reacted with dismay on Thursday to a plan by Magna Entertainment, the majority owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Racecourse, to cut racing days in half in 2006, while supporters of Magna in the state legislature called on lawmakers to consider a special session this year to legalize slots at the company's tracks.

Magna announced the plan on Wednesday morning, before presenting the proposal to horsemen and breeders in the state. On Wednesday afternoon, Magna officials met with representatives of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to outline the plan.

"Obviously, everyone is just stunned," said Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "What I think is most important to remember is that this is Magna's plan, and it's what's best for them. It's not what's best for Maryland. It's not what's best for horsemen. And it's certainly not what's best for breeders."

The proposal calls for a 60-day live meet at Laurel beginning in January. That meet would be followed by an 18-day meet at Pimlico through the third Saturday in May, down substantially from the 60 days of live racing that Pimlico currently runs. Racing would then go on hiatus in the state until Nov. 3, when Laurel would run again.

Horse racing dates in Maryland are approved by the Maryland Racing Commission, which typically hears testimony from all industry stakeholders, including horsemen, before approving the schedule. The commission normally approves dates in November, and must, by law, award racing dates by Dec. 1.

Also late on Wednesday, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller called for legislators to meet in a special session this fall to pass a bill legalizing slots at Maryland's racetracks, citing Magna's proposal to cut dates. Miller's call was supported by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who was the first to announce the proposed reduction during a radio interview on Wednesday morning.

Magna officials were unavailable for comment on Thursday.

With support from Ehrlich and Miller, Magna has lobbied for slot machines for the past three years. Last year, different bills legalizing slots at Maryland sites were passed by both the Senate and the House for the first time, but the bills were never taken up in a conference committee because of sometimes bitter policy differences between the two legislative bodies.

The chief opponent of slots at racetracks has been House Speaker Michael Busch, who met with Magna officials on Wednesday and said that Magna's proposal included no mention of slot machines, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Breeders and horsemen fear that the reduction in racing dates would put some trainers and farms out of business. In a report detailing the proposal, Magna said the reduction would lead to increased purses at its tracks, and that the company could not continue racing 200 days a year without slot machines. The report said that under the plan, average daily purse distribution at Maryland's tracks would rise from the current $194,000 to $304,000.

According to financial statements Magna filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company's Maryland operations had earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization in 2004 of $5.8 million, on revenue of $104.6 million. The prior year, Magna had a loss before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization of $42.3 million, largely because the company took a non-cash writedown of $47.7 million on the tracks. Magna purchased a majority share in the tracks for $84.9 million in late 2002, including options to purchase a larger stake.

Goodall said that many Maryland breeders are unsure whether the proposed reduction was merely a political ploy for Magna to press its case for slot machines.

"Maybe it is just a ploy, and it seems that the legislators are certainly responding," Goodall said. "Maybe this is all about slots. But the problem for breeders is that if this is a ploy, it's still a ploy that they can implement, and at some point, perception becomes reality. With all this talk about cutting racing days, who's going to want to stand a stallion in Maryland?"