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Editorial: Insanity reigns at the track

The soap opera previously known as the Maryland horse racing industry has taken its latest unfathomable turn. If the stakes weren’t so high, it would be comical. But no one can afford to laugh at this.

The owners of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course took their proposal for a drastically reduced 2011 racing card to the Maryland Racing Commission last week and had their heads handed to them.

This week the Pooh-Bahs of racing convened in Annapolis, allegedly seeking answers. After 3½ hours, the consensus was: no consensus.

Great. Now we are left with no racing schedule for 2011 (ahem — can anyone here spell Preakness?) and co-owners who can’t seem to agree on anything but a vague promise to continue to work on a plan to present by Dec. 21.

Hard as it is to imagine, Maryland racing has sunk to a new level of dysfunction.

“Hopefully, somebody will come up with a plan to rescue Maryland racing,” racing commission chairman Louis J. Ulman said last week.

Let’s see now — the chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission hopes “somebody” will come up with a plan to rescue Maryland racing. Here’s a radical thought, Mr. Chairman — how about being part of the solution instead part of the problem?

There is a chasm of disagreement between Penn National Gaming and MI Developments Inc., the owners of Laurel and Pimlico, and an equally wide chasm between the racing commission’s expectations and what the owners have put on the table.

Frank Stronach, chairman of MID, backed a 2011 racing calendar similar to the 146 days of live racing in 2010. But Penn National wanted to end live racing at Laurel and run a 40-day meet at Pimlico.

The partners compromised on a proposal for 47 days — 17 at Laurel and 30 at Pimlico — that the commission unanimously rejected as unacceptable.

It seems to us that the expectations on both sides are unacceptable. Mr. Ulman and the commission are clinging to the dream of maintaining “year-round racing” in Maryland as the only way to preserve that rapidly diminishing industry, said to employ 10,000 people. Yet those days appear to be over.

Laurel pinned all of its hopes on getting a slot machine casino. But with that casino now headed for Arundel Mills mall, Laurel’s owners don’t seem to have a Plan B other than shuttering the track.

In fact, no one has a Plan B, and that’s Maryland’s problem. The old way of doing things clearly isn’t working, and slot machines alone are not the answer.

We need new answers, and there might be some nearby.

As The Daily Record reported last month, Monmouth Park in New Jersey cut its thoroughbred racing meet in half to 71 days this year while fattening purses to attract better competition. Attendance was up and more important, the betting handle jumped 300 percent.

There is also the notion, floated in 2003, of a downtown Baltimore racetrack near the Orioles’ and Ravens’ stadiums. And there are persistent suggestions that the state needs to adopt night racing.

As Monmouth Park General Manager Bob Kulina said, “You can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity. And we’ve all been guilty of it.”

How right he is. Maryland’s decision-makers need to opt for innovation instead of the asylum.