Md. racing industry wants Penn National out

By Liz Farmer 11/29/10

(This is a rewrite of my article that appeared in The Examiner. For that version, click here.)

Maryland horse racing officials and advocates are ‘fed up’ with minority track owner Penn National Gaming and the company’s thoroughbred track ownership stake is in limbo after it backed a proposal to shred Maryland’s racing schedule.

Penn and majority owner MI Developments proposed an anemic, 47 racing days for 2011 — including the lucrative Preakness Stakes — that was unanimously shot down Monday by the Maryland Racing Commission and violently opposed by industry stakeholders.

In striking down the schedule, the racing commission also revoked its preliminary approval for the joint venture’s racing license, meaning the ownership group doesn’t have the commission’s authority to run any races next year at Maryland’s tracks.

Commissioner John Franzone called the proposal an “embarrassment” to the industry. “How much revenue and interest are you generating running up to Preakness, what new marketing are you implementing …. that’s the plan you’re supposed to submit to the commission,” he said.

In the days leading up to the proposal, Penn and Ontario-based MID had issued conflicting statements about plans for Maryland racing, with MID’s chairman Frank Stronach saying the status quo, 140-day racing schedule would be requested. Penn, which bought 49 percent ownership of Laurel and Pimlico tracks this summer, and track operator the Maryland Jockey Club had announced it would curtail racing after losing an Election Day vote to stop a slots casino proposed near Laurel.

The owners now have until the next commission meeting on Dec. 21 to “kiss and make up,” Franzone said, and propose a viable racing plan before the 2011 season is halted.

Spokesman Eric Schippers said on Tuesday Penn hoped “to find a constructive resolution” in the coming weeks but blamed the commission for endangering Maryland racing. Industry advocates, however, are tired of what they call a dysfunctional ownership.

Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said Penn was protecting its interests in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where it owns racetrack casinos.

“They’re now telling us what’s in the best interest of Maryland racing? I don’t think anyone wants to hear from them,” he said. “I think the industry here is just fed up.”

Foreman and others said Gov. Martin O’Malley should consider acting upon a 2009 law that allows him to seize Maryland’s tracks using eminent domain if Preakness is in jeopardy. O’Malley’s spokespeople did not return requests for comment.

“It's not a very good option but you’ve got a very angry racing community right now,” said Foreman.