Updated on 09/16/2011 7:04AM

Maryland memory lapse sure to rile


WASHINGTON - Maryland's horseplayers are accustomed to ill treatment. While the management of Laurel and Pimlico focuses on its profits and horsemen strive to get as much purse money as possible, neither side thinks much about the needs, interests, or desires of the people who generate this revenue.

But even fans thoroughly calloused by these attitudes may have been appalled by two developments this week. The Maryland Racing Commission - at the urging of management and horsemen - approved a measure certain to infuriate and alienate bettors. At the same time, those bettors were having millions of dollars removed from their pockets and handed to horsemen.

At its meeting Tuesday, the commission voted to allow, in certain races, the running of uncoupled entries - i.e., horses trained by the same person would compete as separate betting interests. Throughout most of the history of the sport, horses from the same stable have been linked as a single betting unit, for obvious reasons. If a trainer had an odds-on favorite and a 5-1 shot in the same race, he could arrange for the favorite to lose in order to cash a bet on the longer-priced horse.

Even if horse trainers were as guileless as Mother Teresa, the existence of uncoupled entries would create the appearance and suspicions of impropriety. This is not a matter of speculation; the Maryland Racing Commission in 1977 allowed uncoupled entries and the public's reaction was overwhelmingly hostile. Boos rang out whenever the less-plausible of a trainer's two entrants won a race. The commission eventually saw that it had made a mistake and rescinded its ruling.

The commission must be suffering from amnesia to be swayed by the arguments of management and horsemen and allow the hated practice again. Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, told commissioners that the change "gives an owner and trainer the possibility of having a race conducted that [otherwise] may not have enough betting interests to be carded."

If the track gets six entries for an allowance race, with two horses trained by Dale Capuano and two by Scott Lake, it wouldn't card the event with only four betting interests. But with the two entries split, the track will have six betting interests and a viable race - albeit a race that invites dishonesty and distrust.

Commissioner John Franzone insisted: "We're looking out for the fans. Full fields are what drives this business now." It is indeed true that bettors want larger fields. Moreover, bettors aren't paranoid about uncoupled entries in a large field; a trainer isn't in a position to control the outcome with two uncoupled starters in a field of 12.

But the effect of the rule change will be to create small fields; the racing secretary may encourage a trainer to enter a second horse so that a five-horse race can become a six-horse race. When a single trainer has two potentially dominant horses in a field of six, opportunities for larceny arise and fans start questioning the honesty of the game.

If racing fans had a voice at the commission meeting, they would have said that they had more than done their share - however unwillingly - to help the state's horsemen. Bettors' money was channeled into purses after an infuriating chain of events that began in 1999.

That year Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, found himself under intense political pressure to improve the facilities at Laurel and Pimlico. He put forth a grand plan that his own customers would pay for: The takeout would be raised on wagers in Maryland by about 1.5 percent, and the money would go into a fund backing bonds that would finance the project. But the construction project never got off the ground, and only one part of De Francis's scheme ever materialized: the takeout hike.

Logic and fairness would suggest that the money should be returned to bettors (through a temporary rollback in the takeout, for example), but horseplayers have no political clout. This week the General Assembly earmarked the money - which is expected to total $4.5 million by the end of the next fiscal year in June 2003 - to be used for purses at the state's tracks.

De Francis said that the alternative was for the state to commandeer the money and use it to balance its budget. "To be able to save this money for some industry purpose - rather than lose it entirely - is a good outcome," he concluded. That's easy to say when it is somebody else's money that has been confiscated.

The long-suffering horseplayers thus get a double whammy. Not only they will be grousing about uncoupled entries in small fields at Laurel and Pimlico, they are paying to subsidize those very races.

(c) The Washington Post 2002