Updated on 09/17/2011 12:54PM

MJC doing the right thing


WASHINGTON - The most recent meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission was punctuated by shouts, obscenities, tears, angry accusations, and emotional pleas - all over a proposal to close Pimlico's stable area during the winter. Beneath the controversy is a deeper issue - the relationship of trainers to the tracks where they are based.

The Maryland Jockey Club, owner of the state's Thoroughbred tracks, operates three stable areas - Pimlico, Laurel, and the Bowie Training Center - which can accommodate 2,600 horses. In the winter months, the local Thoroughbred population shrinks, and just about all of the horses could fit into Laurel and Bowie. Closing Pimlico for three months would save the track's owners $700,000 but would be an inconvenience to trainers and their employees who live near the Baltimore track.

The commission will decide Tuesday whether to allow the closure of Pimlico, but another part of the Maryland Jockey Club's plans has already been put into effect and touched more nerves. To clear room at Bowie for Pimlico-based runners, the MJC ejected eight trainers because their horses hadn't raced often enough at the state's tracks. The action served notice to all trainers who occupy stalls at the three sites: Race or get out.

The MJC owns the stable areas, pays for their upkeep, and has the right to determine who gets a certain number of stalls. Lou Raffetto Jr., the MJC's chief operating officer, has been exasperated when he sees Maryland-based trainers running their horses at Delaware or Charles Town more than they do at home. "We're tired of trainers not being held accountable," he said. "People think that [having stalls] is a right, but it's a privilege and we decided to crack down on people who abuse the privilege."

Raffetto ejected from Bowie eight small-time trainers with 37 horses. He also reduced the stall allocations of many trainers, Mary Eppler among them. Eppler has always run an operation with horses of good quality - the late Alfred G. Vanderbilt was one of her owners - and she had 37 stalls at Pimlico. Not only would she be forced to move, but Raffetto also proposed to give her only 18 stalls.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Eppler. "Most of my horses are owned by their breeders. They're not claiming horses who are ready to run."

Eppler's horses usually have not been raced when she gets them; they need time before they are ready to compete. She doesn't believe that an operation such as hers should be held to the same standards as those of claiming trainers who have a high turnover of horses.

Raffetto is unmoved by this argument. He would like to see a trainer produce nine starts per year for every stall he is assigned, and Eppler has averaged little more than three a year. That is considerably below the rate for other Maryland outfits with higher quality stock.

"Because she can fill a barn with 36 horses, that doesn't mean I should give her 36 stalls," Raffetto said. "She's got to support that program."

Such words may sound cold-hearted, and most horsemen will object to Raffetto's actions, but racing fans ought to applaud what the MJC is trying to do.

The most exasperating problem in Maryland is the quality of the day-to-day product. Too many races are uninteresting as betting propositions because of small fields. The low-level maiden and claiming races, which used to be the backbone of a typical card, are abysmal because horses eligible for them run for higher purses at Charles Town.

Of course, the Maryland tracks would like to lure more horses, but there is a finite number of Thoroughbreds in the mid-Atlantic region. One of the few possible solutions is to get more productivity out of the available horse population.

Many tracks have similar problems but are reluctant to take actions that would rile horsemen; during the winter season in Florida, big-name stables annually take up stall space with horses who are getting fit to run elsewhere in the spring. But Raffetto has had enough. Last winter, he said, only 63 percent of the horses stabled at Laurel, Bowie, and Pimlico ran in a Maryland race.

"That's a pathetic number," he said. "We've got to increase the size of our fields by getting Maryland horses to run in Maryland."

That aim is a reasonable one that should be lauded, even if he has to use tough measures to achieve it.

(c) The Washington Post, 2003