by Steuart Pittman
February 2011

Steuart Pittman of Dodon Farm in Davidsonville is the president of the Maryland Horse Council; the following letter was published digitally by MHC after the racing industry was finally able to come to terms regarding the 2011 racing season.

Incoming Executive Director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board Ross Peddicord put it best after hearing news of the victory. “What an incredible show of strength by the Maryland horse industry,” he said.

Maryland Jockey Club owners MI Development and Penn National Gaming learned on December 21 a lesson that nobody should forget. Maryland is horse country, and when you threaten to take that away from us you make a big mistake.

The track owners believed that they could take the slots money that Maryland voters approved for revitalizing horse racing while drastically cutting racing days, closing Bowie Training Center, taking away the rights of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association (MTHA) and Maryland Horse Breeders Association (MHBA) to control simulcasting, cleaning out the bank account of MTHA, decreasing payout to the public when they bet on races, and demanding that MTHA lobby the General Assembly on a host of legislative items that its members may or may not support.

MTHA, MHBA, the Racing Commission, and the 500 of us who packed the meeting Tuesday, December 21, 2010 replied with a loud and clear statement of “NO DEAL.”

We took it further than just no. We let it be known that under these circumstances the only solution for Maryland racing was a transfer of ownership, and that if MID and Penn National continued to refuse to sell we would ask the Governor to seize the tracks and transfer ownership pursuant to the 2009 law that was passed to protect our tracks.

A unanimous vote by the commissioners left Maryland with no racing schedule for 2011, no Preakness, and no options short of state action or a complete turnaround by the track owners. It was noted by many commissioners that the horsemen and breeders had bent over backwards in the negotiations, going so far as to offer a $1.7 million donation to help with operating expenses, while the track owners had made outrageous demands.

Immediately after the meeting, Governor O’Malley made a statement confirming that our threat to seize the tracks was in fact real.
“We are prepared to aggressively protect the State’s interests, as we did two years ago when presented with the threat of losing Maryland’s treasured Preakness Stakes,” he said in reference to the eminent domain law that covers both the Preakness and the tracks themselves. “We will continue to explore the legal options available to us.”

On Wednesday morning, December 22, the track owners returned to the negotiating table at the Governor’s office with a new outlook, and ten thousand people who work in and around racing were given what they wanted for Christmas.

The deal guarantees 146 days of live racing, similar to the 2010 schedule. MTHA will contribute the $1.7 million that had been offered earlier to subsidize operating expenses. The state will facilitate the transfer of $3.5 to $4 million in forthcoming slots revenue from the racetrack renewal fund to an operating subsidy. Bowie Training Center remains open. Breeders and horsemen retain simulcast rights, and no promises are made with respect to lobbying. MTHA and MHBA signed off on the deal and by late afternoon the Racing Commission had reconvened and approved it as well. Maryland racing continues as we know it for 2011.

Now the rules are different.
Some people will suggest that this deal only buys 12 months and that we will be in the same place next year. That view ignores the fact that what happened in recent days has changed the rules of the game.

MID, Penn National, and any future buyer can now be very clear that owning the tracks means running horse races. Notions of short boutique meets that cater to only the top out-of-state trainers can now be forgotten. Ideas of bulldozing the tracks and developing the real estate for other uses are no longer relevant. The state will step in if they try again.

The track owners have only two choices left if they want to make money. One is to turn the tracks into first-class entertainment destinations. The other is to continue begging the state for subsidies. Not many legislators have any fondness left, however, for the two companies doing the begging.

Why do you think it is that David Cordish and others have been so interested in buying the tracks and expanding racing even beyond 146 days? I believe it is because they understand the local market. They know that the Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis triangle is the most lucrative place to do business in America right now. They also see that horses and the lifestyle they represent are a huge marketing attraction.

Imagine the slogan “Maryland Racing, Where Horses Come First.” Come to the track and learn about horses. Bring your horse-crazy children or your horse-crazy date. Watch the demonstrations of horsemanship in the indoor arena between races. See the videos of horses in the next race as they romp and play with their exercise riders and grooms in the morning. Hear what the backstretch workers have to say about their personalities and their care before you place your bets. And then, of course, we have great restaurants, great music, a movie theater that shows horse movies all the time, mechanical horses to ride with tips from real jockeys…!

Can MID and Penn National figure out a way to attract the young professionals that live in this area to the race track? Will they invest the money that it takes to turn the facilities into entertainment destinations? If not, they will fail. If they fail, their choices will be what they were on Tuesday. They can sell to a company that is prepared to succeed, or they will lose the right to own the monopoly that we have entrusted to them.

The voters of Maryland chose at the polls to revitalize horse racing with slots revenue. Recent state projections of revenue from Perryville, Ocean Downs, and Arundel Mills are impressive. The promise of slots funds and the prime locations of our tracks make Maryland racing a good investment. That means that it will not only survive, but it will expand.

Congratulations to everyone who helped to get us this far. Let’s all go spend an afternoon at Laurel in January and bet on some good Maryland racehorses.