At the Thursday evening, January 21, 2010 meeting of the Maryland Horse Council, current and potential future owners of Laurel/Pimlico race courses presented to a packed room radically different perspectives of the current slots situation in Anne Arundel County and how the future of Laurel Park might be affected. Laurel and Pimilco Race Courses are slated to be auctioned February 10, 2010 in order to settle parent company Magna Entertainment’s bankruptcy proceedings. Over 100 horse people filled the Vista Room at the Maryland State Fair Grounds; many leaders in the Thoroughbred industry peppered the audience, including former track owner Bob Manfuso, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen Association’s Richard Hoffberger, Maryland Stallion Station owner Don Litz, Shamrock Farms’s Jim Steele, Maryland Horse Breeders Assocation Executive Director Cricket Goodall, plus Katy Voss, Bill Reightler, Brice Ridgely, Christy Clagett and many more.

Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club (which is owned by Magna), explained how and why the Jockey Club is organizing a petition drive in Anne Arundel County, in which they hope to gather enough signatures from county residents to overturn the special zoning the Cordish Companies received (the zoning exemption allows Cordish to build a slots parlor near Arundel Mills). If MJC is able to raise enough signatures to overturn the granted special zoning, MJC believe it will give them the needed window of opportunity to resubmit a bid for slots at Laurel.

The fear is that, without slots at Laurel Park, racing will not have a future. The hope is that, if the petition is successful, Laurel Park and racing will have a stronger future – and the tracks will become more desirable to potential bidders.

Vehemently countering this logic was Joe Weinberg, president of the Cordish Companies (an international development and entertainment corporation which has expressed an interest in purchasing the racetracks at the bankruptcy auction), noting that in order to gather enough signatures to oppose the special zoning for slots at Arundel Mills, the Jockey Club is going to have to partner with the anti-slots movement. “It is totally irrational to get into bed with the anti-slots people!” an exasperated Weinberg exclaimed, asking the horsemen to consider what kind of Pandora’s Box they could be opening if they were to partner with the anti-slots movement, reminding those present that Anne Arundel County has not been welcoming to slots, that the County Council has tried to avoid dealing with the issue, and that the horsemen would very well end up with no slots anywhere in Anne Arundel County.

The tension was thick as Weinberg implored the horsepeople to maintain perspective regarding the current track ownership, noting several times that “these people [referring to the Magna organization] are not going to exist in one month – they are not credible.”

“To hell with Magna,” am impassioned Chuckas exclaimed. “We know they messed up, but slots belong at Laurel!”

While Weinberg presented the Cordish Companies has having the sophistication and the capital to save Maryland racing, a passionate Karin De Francis made a more personal plea to the horsemen, reminding the locals of her life growing up riding at the Potomac Horse Center and around her father’s race track. She noted that although she currently wears many hats (as an MJC consultant and as a bidder with her brother for the tracks at auction), she has consistently, since 1994, spent her life pursuing the ability to enhance Maryland racing with slots. She noted that the Governor and the presidents of the Senate and the House are all on record as saying that slots would be at Laurel Park. De Francis frankly admitted Magna’s failings, “Yes, Magna screwed up [in not following the required procedures when filing their application for slots at Laurel]; but don’t punish the Jockey Club because the parent company made a bad mistake. We have 17 years of sweat equity involved in this, and we have all the permits in place. Yes, Cordish has done everything by the book…but slots belong at Laurel Park. We’ve all seen what has happened in California…racing can’t survive with the casinos in their own backyard – and that is what would happen to us [if slots are allowed at the Arundel Mills site].” She noted that the all the zoning permits that Laurel has acquired would convey with the new owner.

Weinberg assured horsemen that the Cordish Companies had every intention of keeping live racing at Laurel. When queries as to how Cordish could run two competing gambling operations located so geographically close, he explained that the demographics for slots are completely different from the demographics for racing. Weinberg repeatedly noted that Cordish had the vision, the capital, the expertise and the proven track record to revitalize Thoroughbred racing in Maryland, to make the tracks modern facilities with first class amenities, offering first class products, much of which would be accomplished by expanding the Preakness brand, which they believe is under-utilized.

Maryland Horse Council president Steuart Pittman closed by noting that, in the end, the horsemen don’t get to make the decision as to where slots will go, as that will be determined by residents of Anne Arundel County, and that the horsemen don’t get to vote on who owns the tracks: that will be decided at the auction.

In the end, some horsemen felt it was a question of whether to support the “devil they knew versus the devil they didn’t know.” Some horsemen remained cynical, unimpressed by the Cordish Companies’ proclamations of plenty of capital to invest in reinventing the tracks, noting that Magna had made the same promises when they purchased the tracks, promises which proved empty. Other horsemen took hope and inspiration in the promises of the Cordish Companies, and are ready for a change, any change.

All the horsemen, however, are united in being ready for their lives in limbo to end; they are ready to move onto the next chapter of racing in Maryland – whatever that chapter might be.

To read another perspective on the evening, please visit Sasser Hill.