Laurel Park open for first weekend in three weeks

After forced closures for two straight Saturdays that likely put a dent in its winter revenue, Laurel Park is shoveling off the snow and will be open for business this weekend.

“It has been a long week but we were open for training this morning and are eagerly anticipating tomorrow,” said Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas. “The staff worked diligently to get ready for a terrific President’s Day weekend.”

Because of snow removal problems along the extended, one mile chute, the distance for the eighth race has been changed from one mile to 1-1/16 miles. No other races will be affected.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has recorded 79.9 inches of snow this season, breaking a record set 14 years ago.

Saturday’s card features nine races.

The weekend will also feature several promotions — Saturday will include several treasure chest drawings, including a spa romance package at Turf Valley Resort. Monday’s treasure chest drawing will be for premium seating to this year’s Preakness Stakes.

Md. jockey to be in ‘Secretariat’

Maryland jockey Grant Whitacre will be portraying Paul Feliciano in the movie “Secretariat,” which is slated to be released in the fall. Feliciano rode the 1973 Triple Crown winner in his first two career starts as an apprentice, before the more experienced Ron Turcotte took over.

Secretariat is considered by many to be the best race horse of all time. Mayhem Pictures, with the backing of Walt Disney Pictures, is producing the movie. The companies have collaborated before on sports pics like “Miracle” and “The Rookie.”

(Side note: I have yet to see a sports movie where I don’t get a little weepy — especially a Disney one. When I saw “Miracle” in the theater I was frantically dabbing at my eyes during that final big scene and praying nobody noticed. Those folks at Disney definitely have my number. So, I will be seeing Secretariat when it’s released, it will get a little dusty in the theater and this time I’m bringing Kleenex.)

Whitacre got the job after responding to a casting call in Timonium last year. He got to rub shoulders with some pretty impressive Hollywood company during last fall’s shoot — Diane Lane is playing the owner Penny Chenery (the housewife-turned-champion-breeder), and John Malkovich is cast as the trainer Lucien Laurin.

As for Whitacre in real life, the 24-year-old had a breakout year in 2009. After battling injuries for the first three years of his career, the former Atholton High School baseball player established himself as a reliable rider, ranking seventh in the overall standings last year at Pimlico and Laurel Park. In September, he had the signature win of his career with a victory aboard Sumacha’hot in the Jim McKay Maryland Million Classic.

This weekend, Whitacre was diagnosed with a small hairline fracture in his lower back after being tossed from his mount, Blue Wren, in Saturday’s race at Laurel. He is expected to miss two to six weeks.

Another Maryland-based rider, Tom Foley, will play exercise rider Jim Gaffney in the movie.

How much will Laurel Park’s value drop?

If and when David Cordish’s slots casino at Arundel Mills opens, how will nearby Laurel Park’s business be affected? That seems to be the million dollar question — and we may find out part of the answer next month when Maryland’s thoroughbred tracks are auctioned off.

The Maryland Horse Council sent out an e-mail this week after Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold approved zoning legislation that allows Cordish to move forward at Arundel Mills. In it, the MHC says that the state racing commission’s chair John Franzone estimated that the value of Laurel “would plummet from about $250 to $50 million if Arundel Mills gets the slots license.”

If that’s true, is Laurel Park’s value just as land and not as a race track? But (I can’t resist) hold your horses — the horsemen still say they can block Cordish’s casino project.

Here’s what they say are their options: 1) to take advantage of a county law that allows them to put the issue on the November ballot if they can collect 19,000 signatures in 45 days, 2) campaign in the upcoming legislative session to “hit the re-set button” on slots implementation.

“Nobody intended for the [Video Lottery Terminal] Location Commission to deliver the death knell for Maryland racing,” the e-mail says. “Legislators and the governor can choose to start over if their constituents demand it.”

After the governor implored the county council for months to vote on the zoning issue and the county executive quickly signed the bill, how fast do you think people are ready to do it all over again? If Laurel’s owner, Magna Entertainment, hadn’t messed up in the first place and just filed the $28.5 million application fee for a slots license, the racing industry might not be in this situation in the first place.

But then again, I don’t think anybody wants to see racing decline even more than it has in Maryland, and I agree with the horsemen that many assumed the slots site in Anne Arundel County would be at Laurel Park. But at what point do we have to move on?

Of slot sites and construction permits

In today’s story about the people lining up to bid on Maryland’s race tracks next year, former track owner Joseph De Francis said he did not believe Cordish’s proposed slots parlor at Arundel Mills could be up and running within the next year.

As former president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel and Pimlico race tracks, De Francis said he spent years getting the additional permits needed to run a slots facility. He told The Daily Record that all Laurel needs now is a slots license to start building the gambling machines. Cordish’s site, he said, would still require more permits — some which took Laurel years to get.

Below is the list, along with when each was obtained. Take a look, especially if you know something about construction permits and the Arundel Mills area. Do you agree with De Francis that a slots parlor at the site could get bogged down in additional permits? If he’s wrong, tell us why.

Approved Master Sketch Plan: Anne Arundel County – 11/21/2008
Approved Wetlands and Floodplain Impact Permit: Maryland Department of the Environment – 1/9/2009
Approved Wetlands Impact Permit: US Army Corps of Engineers – 10/31/2008
Approved Road Network and New Main Entrance:State Highway Administration – 10/31/2008
Memorandum of Agreement for Improvements: Maryland Historical Trust – 7/7/2004
Confirmation of Historic Properties: Maryland Historical Trust – 4/9/2004
Confirmation of Jurisdictional Determination: Maryland Department of the Environment – 10/20/2003
Verification of Jurisdictional Determination and Delineation: US Army Corps of Engineers – 9/16/2003
Confirmation of No Threatened or Endangered Species: Department of Natural Resources- 8/19/2003
Confirmation of No Threatened or Endangered Species: US Department of the Interior – 8/12/2003
Verification of Road Dedication for Widening: renewed 1/6/2004
Grading Permit Approval and Wetlands Grading/Fill: Anne Arundel County – 9/25/2007
Reforestation Agreement and Bond – $278,784.56 – renewed 12/8/2008
Specimen Tree Agreement and Bond – $56,108.00 – renewed 12/8/2008
Grading Completion Agreement and Bond – $186,326.43 – amended 8/7/2008
Approved On-Site Water Usage and Appropriation: Maryland Department of the Environment – 1/1/2005
Approved Wetlands Impact Permit: Maryland Department of the Environment – 10/6/2004
Approved Wetlands Impact Permit: US Army Corps of Engineers – 9/22/2004
Grading Permit Approval and Floodplain Disturbance: Anne Arundel County – 6/21/2004
Approved Floodplain Impacts: Maryland Department of the Environment – 7/1/2004
Afforestation Agreement and Bond – $71,002.80

De Francis Dash Stakes downgraded

In 2010, Maryland will only have two Grade I stakes races. In another display of how the state’s quality of racing has declined in recent years (thanks to better competition and bigger purses from our slots-wielding neighbors), the annual Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash has been downgraded to a Grade II race.

Now the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, and the historic Pimlico Special are the only remaining Grade I races in Maryland. Both races are run at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course in May.

“It is disappointing,” said Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Georganne Hale in a statement. “They look at the races over a four-year period with the number of Grade I winners in the race. Our average was 1.4 but with so few Grade I sprints, how many Grade I winners can we attract?”

The De Francis Dash, named for the Laurel and Pimlico track owner who died in 1989, debuted in 1990 and was first graded in 1992. It became a Grade I event in 1998.

It was one of five races downgraded from Grade I to Grade II. Of the 723 unrestricted U.S. stakes races with a purse of at least $75,000, 487 of them were assigned a graded status this year by the American Graded Stakes Committee.

Fifteen graded races were upgraded and 23 were downgraded, including the De Francis Dash and Pimlico’s Miss Preakness Stakes, which went from a Grade III to ungraded.

Seem pretty clear to me — this is a message from the committee that the only thing really holding up horse racing in Maryland at this point is the Preakness Stakes. This year wagering on Preakness Day made up just over HALF the total wagering done for the spring meet at Pimlico. That’s pretty lop-sided if you ask me.

Also, the Pimlico Special was canceled in 2009 for the third time this decade because of (yet again) a purse shortage. Seems like the only thing going for the race at this point is having the distinction of holding the “Race of the Century” between Seabiscuit and War Admiral more than 70 years ago.

Will Maryland horse racing in the eye of the general public ever again be more than just Preakness?

Slots case: all dollars and no sense?

Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver LLC, the firm that is representing the Laurel Racing Association, submitted its April bill this month, and here are the grand totals:

The firm asked for $329,806.80 in legal fees — 80 percent of the more than $412,000 it would have typically billed — and for nearly $40,000 in expenses.

The bill had to be submitted to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware because Laurel Racing’s parent company, Magna Entertainment, filed for Chapter 11 in March. It’s also itemized, so we know that Managing Partner Alan Rifkin spent 192.9 hours on the case at a rate of $505 per hour for a total of $97,414.50, and Partner Michael Berman spent 266.9 hours at an hourly rate of $395 for a total of $105,425.50.

OK, maybe I can see where they’re going with this. After all, the application fee was supposed to be $28.5 million, so I guess the racing association, a subsidiary of the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., saved $28 million by hiring attorneys to argue their case in court.

But the longer the case, which is now in appeals, goes on the more expensive it gets for the racing association. And if they eventually get the decision overturned and win, won’t they eventually have to front the money if they still want to bid on a license to operate slots at the track?

At what point does arguing this case become a waste of time and money?

Laurel and Pimlico tracks drop in value

Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park dropped in value last year according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing this week.

The filing by bankrupt owner Magna Entertainment Corp. said that the company’s audit committee approved a $136 million write-down in the value of the company’s assets including the Maryland Jockey Club (which operates Laurel and Pimlico for Magna), Golden Gate Fields, Lone Star Park and The Meadows.

The properties “experienced lower average daily attendance and decreased wagering activity compared to previous years,” the filing said. “In addition, the 2009 business plans for these operations reflected reductions in estimated future cash flows based on lower expectations for growth and profitability resulting primarily from the significant downturn in the U.S. economy.”

In its bankruptcy filings, Magna has not assigned a dollar value to each of its assets up for auction, but the news that they have dropped in value could affect the offers. Do you think this news could attract people looking for a bargain or steer potential track owners away?