Racing panel’s new look makes some unhappy

Daily Record Business Writer
September 22, 2009 7:21 PM

The faces of the Maryland Racing Commission changed this month when two new appointees officially took their seats — and not everyone is happy with the makeup.

Those in the standardbred industry, which runs the state’s harness racing tracks, say their voice has diminished on the nine-person board while the thoroughbred industry has too much influence.

“If you look at it, it’s not balanced,” said Ralph Hayward, president of the Maryland Standardbred Breeders Association. “I don’t think the commission should be ruling at all on standardbred [issues]…if we’re not adequately represented.”

The two new appointees to represent the standardbred industry are Ernest R. Grecco, president of the Baltimore chapter of the AFL-CIO, and Thomas W. Winebrener, a member of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners’ Association and owner of Fox Den Farm in Union Bridge. Grecco has represented laborers in the horse industry from thoroughbred breeders to standardbred breeders to track employees.

They took the seats of two men firmly established in Maryland’s harness racing industry: David R. Clogg and William A. Gerwick, members of the Maryland Standardbred Race Fund Advisory Committee, whose commissions expired this year.

Jackie Nigh, the third designated standardbred representative, stepped down last winter to take a job with the Maryland Jockey Club, and was replaced by David Hayden, a thoroughbred horse owner. Nigh is Winebrener’s daughter.

The Maryland statute requires that “at least [three] members shall be knowledgeable or experienced in an aspect of harness racing” and requires the same for thoroughbred racing.

Louis J. Ulman — an attorney who has owned harness racing horses but now owns thoroughbreds — was designated as a standardbred commissioner after Nigh’s departure, according to a July e-mail from the commission’s executive director obtained by The Daily Record.

Standardbred owners point to the number of thoroughbred owners on the commission (including the chairman John Franzone) and say they are outnumbered five-to-one.

“I don’t feel there are three legitimate standardbred people on there now,” said former Commissioner Clogg.

After a public meeting last week, Ulman said he wasn’t sure for which industry he was designated, but everyone on the board was familiar with the harness racing industry.
? “You have to have knowledge [of the industry],” he said. “You don’t have to be an owner to qualify.”

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said the commission appointments were made within the requirements of the statute and they “adequately and fairly represent the constituencies that they serve.”

The complaints come at a time when the commission may have to rule on an issue of importance to both industries — the reauthorization of Rosecroft Raceway’s rights to take bets on races at major thoroughbred tracks. Rosecroft, a harness track in Prince George’s County which halted live racing last year, now simulcasts mostly standardbred and quarter-horse races with limited thoroughbred races.

The racing commission voted to shut off the simulcast signal at Rosecroft in April because the track’s owner refused to pay the $5.9 million annual fee to Maryland’s thoroughbred industry. The owner said because of declining handles at the track he could no longer afford the fee, which was part of a 15-year agreement between the two industries struck in 2006.

Since April, the two industries have failed to reach an agreement on simulcasting at Rosecroft that is necessary for the signal to be restored.

“The situation presented is a continuation of the long festering internecine struggle between the Maryland thoroughbred and standardbred industry,” Judge Paul Mannes wrote in a ruling that allows the racing commission to hold a hearing later this year on Rosecroft’s simulcast rights. His ruling, which came in a related court case, painted the standardbred industry as an underdog and called the 2006 agreement “improvident.”

Franzone said the harness racing industry in Maryland has had its struggles but pointed to other reasons.

“There’s all kinds of reasons [for the decline] but it’s certainly not because of the racing commission,” he said. “In my mind it’s not as popular as a wagering product .. .they tend to have lower payouts. There’s not as many long shots.”

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