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One-year deal OK’d for tracks

The Maryland Jockey Club will lean on $10 million in subsidies from the state and horse owners to maintain a 146-day live racing schedule next year and keep the industry limping along as it seeks a long-term solution.

The Maryland Racing Commission approved the deal between the club — owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course — and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s great that we can keep the tradition of year-round thoroughbred horse racing in Maryland, keep 15,000 jobs in Maryland,” said commission Chairman Louis J. Ulman.

But, he added, there are “substantial issues” that remain unresolved.

Industry representatives reached the agreement Saturday and signed it Tuesday morning. The unanimous voice vote by the commission marked the second year in a row in which the future of racing in Maryland and its crown jewel, the Preakness Stakes, hung in the balance as December drew to a close, only to be saved by an 11th hour deal.

The horsemen’s association agreed to up its subsidy to $4 million in 2012 from $1.7 million this year.

“It’s an amount that we, from a financial standpoint, thought was appropriate to support 146 days of racing,” said Alan Foreman, the group’s chief counsel.

Tom Chuckas, president of the jockey club, said the club will apply for state operating subsidies as well, “more than likely” seeking the full $6 million allotted by the legislature in the spring to keep the tracks afloat in 2012.

Maryland extended a $3.6 million operating subsidy to the thoroughbred tracks this year.

The $4 million from the horsemen will be paid to the club in monthly installments, and the club will seek reimbursement from the state as losses occur.

Chuckas said the subsidies will lift the jockey club to, or close to, break-even next year.

Industry representatives, including top officials with the jockey club and horsemen’s association, will meet every other week starting Jan. 7 to piece together a framework for a sustainable future for horse racing in Maryland. They hope to reach an agreement by July 1.

Bruce F. Quade, one of the commissioners mediating discussions, said such a plan and the certainty it could bring are critical to the horse owners, horse breeders and the jockey club.

“You want to know that there’s something in place for the out years,” he said.

Certainty has been in short supply for thoroughbred racing in Maryland.

This year and last, the jockey club floated proposals to hold 40 days of live racing in Maryland to stanch losses.

The jockey club lost $20 million at its thoroughbred tracks in 2010, according to partially audited financial data submitted to the state in March. That works out to almost $137,000 for every day the tracks held live racing.

The club lost $14 million at its tracks in 2009, and $12 million the year before that, according to unaudited financial reports.

The horsemen and breeders fought — and paid — to keep the racing schedule at 146 days, and the racing commission last year rejected a plan to deviate from the status quo.

Chuckas said there are “five or six” major issues to be resolved. Those include, said Foreman, the number of live race days to be offered, how many stabling spots are available and an effort to promote regional cooperation on racing schedules.

Some in the industry have pushed for mid-Atlantic tracks to coordinate their racing schedules in a way that would allow thoroughbred owners to travel from meet to meet.

Such an arrangement could lead to fewer racing days in Maryland, but allow for tracks to attract better fields of horses and, they hope, more spectators and bets.

“Clearly it’s something that should be explored,” said Ulman.

Cynthia McGinnes, a horse breeder who owns Thornmar Farms in Chestertown with her husband, said the jockey club should offer evening and nighttime races and focus its marketing efforts on Washington, D.C., and the well-heeled, would-be-bettors in its suburbs.

“We need to make some changes or we’ll never make any money,” she said.