Maryland Racing Firing On All Cylinders

The Maryland horseracing industry has been speeding along like a Formula One race car, firing on all cylinders.

The Maryland General Assembly passed The Maryland International and Preakness Stakes Incentive Act of 2016, allowing for the establishment of the Maryland International Thoroughbred Race – that must be run as a Grade 1 race on turf at Laurel Park.

The act also establishes a $500,000 bonus program for Maryland-bred or sired horses winning in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course and approved $100,000 for a Maryland-bred or sired horse that finishes second through fifth in the Preakness.

Days later, the Maryland Racing Commission also approved the opening of the Maryland Jockey Club’s fourth off-track betting facility at GBoone’s Events Center on Old National Pike near Boonsboro and approved the liquor license for the new OTB at the Timonium Fairgrounds Race Track.

“It’s like hitting a racing trifecta,” says Sal Sinatra, MJC president and general manager. “First of all, we’re delighted the bill passed the legislature. The International put Laurel on the racing map for years and this gives us a golden opportunity to bring it back.”

The International – then known as the D.C. International and one of the greatest turf races in the world – was born in 1952. It drew horses from South America, Australia, the Soviet Union, France and other foreign countries.

But in 1994 it ran for the last time, defeated by the rise of the Breeders’ Cup.

Now, if – or as Maryland Racing Commission chair John McDaniel speculates, when – the MRC approves the new International, it could actually be strengthened by the Breeders’ Cup.

“We’d like to make it a Breeders’ Cup prep race and run it in late September or early October, maybe as early as next year, 2017,” Sinatra says. “And our ultimate wish is to try to establish it as a ‘Win and You’re In’ race with the Breeders’ Cup. It would add to the cachet and make it easier to get horses.”

In passing the bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Larry Hogan before the end of May, the legislature provided $500,000 in purse money for the International.

“This bill passed unanimously [by a 137-0 vote in the House and 46-0 in the Senate],” McDaniel says. “It reflects in its entirety that Maryland racing has the confidence of the legislature. I’m very pleased and I know The Stronach Group, the MJC and the horsemen are, too.”

McDaniel says when he attended a recent meeting of the Racing Commissioners International “the buzz was all about Maryland racing. Everyone sees the handles are up, more trainers are coming. People want to be part of it.

“I think it goes back to the 10-year agreement and everyone being engaged in the process of bringing Maryland racing back to its best in seven-to-10 years. And the MJC has been an extremely supportive part of that.”

Sinatra and the MJC love that the money they are putting into the Maryland racetracks is paying dividends.

“I think when you just work hard stuff like that bill – when you’re investing funds and showing progress – the legislature is more likely to support you,” Sinatra says.

The latest infusion of money by the MJC into Pimlico, he says, totals from $750,000 to $1 million. About $500,000 of that money was spent upgrading the 21-by-30-foot infield television to a high-definition model. The rest went to fixing the water pumps, so there is not a recurrence of last year’s water pressure problems and sealing the roof over the grandstand boxes where last year’s Preakness-day deluge caused unexpected leaks.

“The group that got rained on last year won’t this year,” Sinatra says. “We also put down new carpeting in that area and installed new TVs.”

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s legislative consultant, D. Robert Enten, a lawyer with the Gordon Feinblatt law firm and who has been working for the MTHA for 22 years, can’t argue with that.

“There is a lot of support for the racing industry right now,” Enten says. “You can make a compelling argument that things are better in Maryland than in most other racing states in the nation.”

Enten’s list is long for proving the point. He notes there is new management at the tracks, more money for the Purse Account, etc. He also points out attendance, handle and average number of horses in each race is up.

“And, the industry is working together toward a common goal,” he says. “This bill passage shows it is all paying off and that the legislature is willing to direct money to our programs when there is harmony.”

The bill becomes effective July 1, 2016, and remains in effect for three years, ending June 30, 2019. Enten says that if all goes well, he would hope another bill to extend the programs would be introduced during the 2019 session and that the legislature would pass it.

“It is key that the horse racing industry is united,” Enten says. “The handles are up; MJC has been making significant improvements at the tracks, including the barns being built; so many positives, so many things getting done. The legislature is pleased to see its investments paying off and is willing to further invest in the industry.”

Among the things getting done is the expansion of the OTB network. Timonium is drawing better than the MJC anticipated.

Sinatra said its handle over the Florida Derby weekend exceeded $100,000 in two days, beating the $80,000 pulled in at the OTB in the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore.

“It will be a horse race to see which of those facilities do better over the year,” Sinatra says. Sinatra is also excited to have the Boonsboro OTB location open.

“I don’t know what to expect from Boonsboro,” he says.

Estimates have been made about what the handle may be for the first year – from $3 million to $5 million – but with the surprising performance at Timonium, Sinatra is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There has been great support and interest from the people in Boonsboro and the surrounding communities,” he says. “We’ve already added a couple more [betting] machines at Timonium. We’ll see what happens. But I’m tickled to death to have the third one [OTB] opened. So far, we’re two-for-two [in success]. “

Maryland’s racing engine is humming.

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