Updated on 09/17/2011 11:05AM

Meet Maryland racing's new chairman

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WASHINGTON - When Tom McDonough was appointed chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission this month, his principal credential was his love of the sport. He had never held a position in the racing-business industry, and he didn't know much about the workings of the commission.

He met Mike Hopkins, the board's executive secretary, and asked, "By the way, is there any pay for this job?"'

"Thirty-four cents a mile," Hopkins informed him.

McDonough said he expected to be having several lunches and breakfasts with racing-industry leaders to get acquainted with them.

"Can I submit the chits for the expenses?" he inquired.

"No," Hopkins said.

Welcome to the new job: no salary; no expense account except for auto mileage; plenty of headaches. The new chairman assumes his position as the Maryland racing industry is at a critical juncture and the commission is in the midst of contentious relations with the owners of Laurel and Pimlico.

McDonough is a lifelong Marylander and an attorney. Some 20 years ago he was defending asbestos-related lawsuits and found himself on the same side of some cases with a young attorney named Bob Ehrlich. When Ehrlich ran for Congress, McDonough held a fundraiser for him, and he did the same when Ehrlich made his bid for the governorship in 2002.

After Ehrlich's victory, McDonough wrote a letter to the new governor, telling him of his interest in horse racing and saying, "Please consider me for a seat on the racing commission." Neither a fat-cat contributor nor a social friend of Ehrlich, he said, "I was taking a shot."

In Maryland, as in most states, people get a place on the racing commission through political appointments; knowledge or interest in the sport isn't necessarily a requirement.

But McDonough comes into the job with the perspective of a fan who loves the game. He likes to gamble, and he likes the sport's big events, regularly attending the important 3-year-old prep races, the Triple Crown races, and the Breeders' Cup. He spent last summer at Del Mar. Some years ago he bought a 10 percent share of a Thoroughbred named Young at Heart, trained in California by the late Charlie Whittingham, and the horse finished in the money in 15 of 16 starts. He has owned fractional shares of others, though he has no horses now.

In his new position, McDonough said, "I'd like to blow the trumpet for the sport." But he'll have to be more than a cheerleader for horse racing. He takes the helm of a fractious group facing some vital issues. Some commission members have been vituperative in their criticism of the Thoroughbred tracks' management, particularly of Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis. They have denounced the deteriorating condition of the physical plants of Laurel and Pimlico, particularly their stable areas, which commissioner John Franzone has described as having "Third World" conditions. They have reason to distrust management, too, after De Francis unveiled ambitious plans for renovating the facilities and never did anything.

When Magna Entertainment Corp. bought the tracks a year ago, the commission extracted a pledge from the company to make $30 million in improvements, with $5 million of those expenditures to be made by Aug. 31. But there hasn't been any action yet, and the commissioners are getting restless, though Magna's delay is understandable.

As everybody in the industry is painfully aware, Ehrlich's proposal to install slot machines in the state's tracks was stalled in the last session of the Legislature. The prospects for slots are now uncertain - and so, too, is the tracks' future. Pimlico could either be attracting huge daily crowds flocking to 3,500 slot machines or catering to a small knot of hard-core customers watching Thoroughbred simulcasts on television. It is practically impossible to undertake significant renovations without knowing which scenario to plan for.

Nevertheless, the commission wants to see some action, and McDonough sounds as if he isn't going to stand for any delays. Even if there are no slots at the tracks, he said, "Magna has substantial resources to go it alone." And they made a commitment - slots or no slots - when they purchased Laurel and Pimlico. "They made their wager," McDonough said. "Now they're not paying the bookie."

McDonough can expect some impassioned confrontations with track owners as well as his fellow commissioners, but he is prepared for them. "I'm not a stranger to the adversarial process," he said. "It is my professional life. You can be more effective compromising than being obstinate, and I'm a pretty good consensus builder."

At a critical time for Maryland racing, he'll have plenty of opportunities to put these skills to work.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post