10/14/2003 11:00PM

Trainers allege discrimination


LAUREL, Md. - In a raucous meeting marked by a commissioner's obscenity-filled response to charges of discrimination, the Maryland Racing Commission on Tuesday voted to review the Maryland Jockey Club's documentation for evicting trainers and closing the stable area at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the winter.

More than 100 trainers and backstretch employees attended the meeting at Laurel Park, which, like Pimlico, is owned by the Maryland Jockey Club.

The jockey club had announced the closing of the Pimlico stable for three months this winter in order to save $600,000 to $700,000.

To make room for Pimlico's horses at the jockey club's other training centers at Laurel and Bowie, officials cut the number of stalls allotted to nearly all trainers and evicted about a dozen trainers at Bowie. The jockey club provides stalls for free.

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the jockey club, said the evictions were based on trainers' participation in Maryland races. Trainers who stable their horses in Maryland but run them at out-of-state tracks are no longer welcome, Raffetto said.

However, several trainers told commissioners they believe the evictions were, in part, discriminatory - that African-American trainers and "trainers of color," especially at Bowie, had had their stall allotment cut or withdrawn.

Raffetto said stalls were cut based on "lack of support of Maryland racing and for no other reason."

Lou Ulman, a commissioner, then asked Raffetto whether the jockey club had an affirmative-action program. Bruce Spizler, the commission's lawyer, interjected that discrimination must be shown before affirmative action needs to be addressed.

Spizler said that based on what commissioners had heard, no discrimination had been demonstrated. Ulman, a lawyer, said he disagreed.

Suddenly, Al Akman, a commissioner, slammed the palm of his right hand on the table. He stood up and said, loudly and with expletives, that he was sick and tired of the talk of discrimination and that the cutbacks had nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with not running horses in Maryland.

After the meeting, Akman, a longtime horse owner familiar with the barn areas, said: "There's no place in the American work force that has less discrimination than the racetrack. Minorities at racetracks have been welcome all my life."

The commissioners adjourned after deciding to study the material submitted by the jockey club and to discuss it again at the commission's next meeting, Nov. 11 at Laurel. With the meeting over, a fuming Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the jockey club, said Ulman's comments were "absolutely outrageous."