11/30/2010 5:17PM

Maryland officials express fear of racing shutdown

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Maryland regulators and horsemen’s representatives warned on Tuesday that racing and simulcasting in the state will shut down as of Jan. 1 unless the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club relent on a controversial plan to pare racing by as many as 100 dates next year.

Concern over the 2011 racing schedule, including the fate of the Preakness Stakes, follows the decision on Monday by the Maryland Racing Commission to reject the Maryland Jockey Club’s proposal to hold 47 days of live racing next year. If the MJC’s owners do not submit a plan that incorporates far more dates for 2011 by the end of the year, then horseplayers in Maryland will not be able to wager on Thoroughbred races, either live or simulcast, the officials said.

“It’s pretty clear that the commission voted yesterday to say that 47 days is not an acceptable plan for Maryland,” said J. Michael Hopkins, the executive director of the commission. “And unless they come back to the racing commission with some plan that is acceptable before December, then there will be no racing come January.”

The unanimous vote by the racing commission to reject the proposal has not just thrown the 2011 racing schedule into limbo. It has also introduced uncertainty over whether Penn National Gaming’s agreement to buy a 49 percent stake in the Maryland Jockey Club from MI Developments remains viable.

Penn reached the agreement to buy the stake earlier this year. The deal, however, was contingent upon the commission’s approval of a business plan for the MJC for 2011, and the rejection on Monday of the proposal could mean that the company will be allowed to back out of the agreement, according to officials.

Representatives of Penn and MI Developments did not return phone calls on Tuesday. Officials of the MJC referred all requests for comment to officials at the parent companies.

Horsemen and breeders packed the Maryland Racing Commission meeting on Monday to express opposition to the plan, in comments that underlined the deep level of distrust between the horsemen and the racing companies, according to a transcript of the meeting. Following dozens of comments by horsemen, the commission voted 8-0 to reject the proposal, which would have entailed 30 days of live racing at Pimlico in Baltimore and 17 days of live racing at Laurel Park midway between Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

“This is a very, very sad day in Maryland racing,” said commission chairman Lou Ulman, according to the transcript. “To come in with 17 days of racing at Laurel and 30 days at Pimlico, that is not racing. . . . To me this is an application for days, not a plan for Maryland racing.”

The willingness of the Maryland Jockey Club to hold a traditional schedule of 160 days of live racing in the state was undermined by the rejection in early November of a referendum that would have overturned zoning approvals for a casino located 10 miles from Laurel. Following the vote, MJC officials said that the only way for the company to make money in 2011 would be to close Laurel and hold 40 dates of live racing at Pimlico.

Penn National bought into the Maryland Jockey Club in the hopes that it could steer the casino license to Laurel Park if voters overturned the zoning approvals. With the Monday rejection of the dates plan, the company – which already owns casinos in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia – may now have a legal exit from its investment, which some horsemen would welcome.

“They’re a gaming company,” said Alan Foreman, the, legal counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, on Tuesday. “They’re not a racing company. And they want to hold the racing industry hostage because they didn’t get want they want here on the gaming side. That clearly is not going to be acceptable to anyone in the state of Maryland.”