04/06/2009 11:00PM

A mess in Maryland not easily sorted out


TUCSON, Ariz. - Comedy and tragedy share the same stage, and events in Maryland would be comic if they were not so tragic for Maryland racing.

The sport could use a few laughs these days, with the grimness of Ernie Paragallo's "thin horses" and Jeff Mullins's Aqueduct doings unraveling all the positive PR on security and the well-being of horses. Add the cost to the historic tradition of the Preakness and Pimlico, and you have a very unfunny mess in Maryland.

The whole situation was best summarized by the Washington Post, which said, "After years of debate, thousands of hours of public testimony, a statewide referendum and campaigns by two governors, this is where the effort to bring slot machines to Maryland now finds itself: stuck in the Anne Arundel County Council chambers."

That was written before last Friday night, when the council found itself in the glare of national attention as a divided constituency argued for and against letting slots into their lush idyllic acres.

The heat in the kitchen was more than the seven-man council could bear, and when one member turned up missing because of post-surgery stress, the council postponed its critical vote for another two agonizing weeks.

There is a lot at stake, of course. Anne Arundel County sits athwart the hugely busy highway that links Baltimore and Washington, and that is the jewel sought by the people seeking slots there. That includes Magna Entertainment itself, which created the current mess when it chose not to post the $28 million-plus needed as an application fee for a slots license, and was disqualified as a result by the special commission named to decide the matter. Magna contends that was an unconstitutional act, and is challenging the decision in court.

Also wrapped up in the Maryland situation is the pending auction of the bankrupt Magna's assets, including Laurel Park and Pimlico. A bankruptcy hearing to decide some aspects of the Magna issue was, like the Anne Arundel council vote, postponed. The cast of potential bidders for the tracks so far includes:

* David S. Cordish, whose giant Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. won the slots bid that Magna lost. Unlike Magna, which wanted to put slots at its aging Laurel Park, Cordish wants to put them at a big mall in Anne Arundel - leading to Friday night's contentious council meeting.

* Heritage Racing, a group of concerned, but unnamed, good citizens whose representative, Baltimore attorney Theodore Hirsch, says their objective is simple: keeping the Preakness is Maryland.

* Developer Carl Verstandig, who wants to bid on Laurel and Pimlico, but not the Preakness, and possibly tear down Pimlico to build a shopping mall on the site. When this idea created a furor, Verstandig relented, but perhaps not enough to make anyone but himself happy.

* Halsey Minor, the 43-year-old CNET founder and multimillionaire, who wants to buy tracks but can't find anyone to take his money. He has been trying unsuccessfully to buy Hialeah from John Brunetti, Santa Anita from Magna, and now, according to published reports, intends to sell off some assets and dive deep, offering to buy all of Magna's racing holdings except Gulfstream, which he says is not worth the $175 million asking price.

You are free, of course, to join the crowd. The water is cold. Wear heavy trunks.

While all this melodrama was unfolding in Maryland, to the south Churchill Downs was making its own news.

It announced its latest idea to make non-Derby days - or nights - bountiful.

Churchill shattered tradition, saying that it would try - gasp! - night racing this year, on the last two Fridays in June and the first Thursday in July. Darren Rogers and John Asher, speaking for the track, said lights really were included in the giant remodeling four years ago, but were dropped when the cost of that project soared past $120 million.

Now, for the 2009 experiment, they face the expense of lighting the big oval with temporary lights, and then, if the experiment warrants, installing permanent lights, a million dollar-plus project.

Churchill was encouraged by Friday nights at Hollywood Park - which faces extinction - and at its Kentucky neighbor Turfway, where night racing is supplemented by dollar beer and music.

Still to be heard from, of course, are Churchill's horsemen.

The few quoted in early returns did not sound thrilled, and with working hours of 6 to 11 at night and training at 5 or 6 a.m. there will be other grumbling.

When George Morton Levy, the father of modern harness racing, introduced the sport at Roosevelt Raceway in 1940, persevering during the war years and reaping the rich rewards postwar, he chose nights because he had to, not wanting to go up against daytime Thoroughbred racing in New York. The pattern of runners in the daytime and trotters and pacers at night has continued, with a major but significant difference.

Thoroughbred racing continues to take its leisurely time between races. Harness racing goes 17 minutes or less between official and post, and its trainers have grown up on the quick turnaround, both between races and between late nights and early mornings. It will be interesting to see how Churchill's horsemen adapt. React may be a better word.