Next week’s looking to be a busy one in Maryland.
On Tuesday, November 17, the state Racing Commission, under new chairman John McDaniel, will hold its monthly meeting.
And then, three days later, the Maryland Jockey Club will host a “town hall” meeting with industry leaders Friday, Nov. 20 to discuss its vision for the future of the Maryland Thoroughbred industry.
The town hall meeting, open to industry stakeholders, the media and public, will be held in the Carriage Room at Laurel Park. The town hall meeting will begin at 6 p.m. after a free buffet dinner beginning at 5:30 p.m.
“We believe this is a good time to get together as a group to discuss what our hopes and plans are for the Maryland Thoroughbred industry as well as answer any questions from the public and other stakeholders who support the industry,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns the MJC. “I believe this is an exciting time for Maryland racing, but we believe there’s so much more potential. I believe the town hall will bring everyone together for a positive and productive discussion.”
Other scheduled speakers include Maryland Racing Commissioner Bruce Quade, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Commission, and general counsel Alan Foreman of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA).
That those three will accompany the same stage — presumably amicably — is one sign of the progress that’s occurred in Maryland in recent years. Just less than five years ago, the Commission held an acrimonious meeting in the same room to discuss the MJC’s proposed 2011 racing schedule. That proposal included 146 days of live racing — but with severe enough conditions that horsemen’s advocates considered them poison pills to the whole deal.
During the meeting, the MJC, then a joint venture between a Stronach-owned company and Penn National Gaming, came in for a tongue-lashing after its proposals were judged — by Foreman and others — “an insult to Maryland racing.”
And David Hayden, then as now a member of the Commission, added, “For the long-term betterment of racing, we need new ownership.”
That was then; this is now.
Within a year, Penn National would be subtracted from the MJC equation, leaving the Stronach Group in charge.
These days, the Stronach Group is investing solidly in the Free State. The Maryland Jockey Club says it has spent more than $17 million the past 10 months renovating Laurel Park. Renovations have included new barns, flooring, seating and concession stands, a renovated simulcast area, and high-definition televisions throughout its facility and on its broadcast.
Total handle on Maryland racing is up $53 million from last year, and the Maryland Jockey Club’s off-track betting facility at the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Baltimore has handled more than $5 million in less than six months of operation. And handle at the 30th Jim McKay Maryland Million Day on October 17 jumped nearly 40 percent versus the prior year.
Of course, no one should expect there won’t be vigorous conversation at the town hall meeting. Horsemen have a variety of questions and concerns — the future of Pimlico and the place of small- and mid-sized barns in the new world of Maryland racing among them — and generally aren’t shy about sharing them. Union reps and some employees have concerns of their own.
But if the various improvements completed and underway at Laurel Park are one form of evidence of Maryland racing’s improving fortunes, it’s also safe to say that the track’s decision to hold a town hall meeting is another.
(This story includes information from a Maryland Jockey Club release.)