By Bill Finley
While eager to see the return of live racing at Laurel, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President Tim Keefe knows that the belt-tightening may not end any time soon. Casino revenues account for a large portion of the purse money for the Maryland tracks and its likely that the state’s casinos will be closed for several more months.
“It certainly is a concern and something on our minds,” Keefe said. “Nearly70% of our purse revenues are derived from the casinos. With them being closed down, obviously it is a big concern for us.”
Maryland racing is not alone. Tracks in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Louisiana and Delaware are among those where betting handle only makes up a small percentage of the total amount available for purses. The worry is that the tracks will be allowed to race well before the casinos are able to reopen and, if that happens, purses could fall sharply.
Keefe said his expectations were that the Maryland tracks would open sometime between May 15 and May 31. The final decision is up to Governor Larry Hogan, who has said he will reopen the state in a “safe, gradual way.” As of Tuesday, there had been 27,117 cases of the coronavirus in Maryland and 1,390 deaths.
Keefe has no inside knowledge regarding when the Maryland casinos will be allowed to operate again, but he knows their opening is not something Hogan will rush. In a Q & A Keefe did that was sent out to members of the horsemen’s group, he said, “We think it is safe to assume that we will not derive any revenue for purses from the casinos for many months.”
“In Maryland, our governors have taken a very conservative, very tactful approach to opening things up,” he said. “He is listening to the medical experts and has been judicious in what he’s doing and how he is opening things up. All these governors have a lot of pressure on them to get their economies going again. The bottom line is our governor will do it when he feels it is the right time.”
The horsemen do have a cushion, a $3.2-million surplus in the purse account, that can be dipped into once racing resumes. Keefe said it has yet to be decided how best to spend that money, whether the surplus should be paid out right away to keep purses at pre-coronavirus levels or if it should be spent cautiously so that it can last. If the money was used at the start of the resumption of racing and if the goal is to maintain purse levels as they were, the surplus would last for about 19 racing days.
With less purse money available, Keefe said the stakes schedule will have to be cut and said there would be no stakes races at Laurel in the weeks and months after the track reopens.
“For the immediate future, as far as the stakes program goes, we won’t have one,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. The thought behind that is the purse monies we do have we want to get it into the hands of the Marylanders, the guys that are here and have supported Maryland racing and are struggling. To us, that makes the most sense.”
If not for the coronavirus, the GI Preakness S., plus the many supporting stakes run Preakness Week, would be less than two weeks away. With a $1.5 million purse for the Preakness alone, there might some temptation on the part of horsemen to lower the purse or, perhaps, put the race off for a year. Keefe said that is not something that has come up.
“I haven’t had that discussion,” said Keefe, who speculated that the Preakness may be rescheduled for October. “There may be talk of that among the horsemen; I know there has been some discussion about that. We would listen to whatever The Stronach Group proposes and, hopefully, will make the right decision.”
Realizing that there will have to be a new normal once racing resumes, the horsemen and management have agreed on a number of changes. In the initial stages after racing begins again, only Maryland-based horses will be allowed to run. No ship-ins will be permitted from out of state and jockeys who are not Maryland regulars will not be permitted to ride. With claiming horses making their first starts since the shut down began at Laurel March 15, owners may waive the claiming price, as long as the horse isn’t dropping in class. Should a horse start in a $20,000 claimer after last racing in a $20,000 claimer, they will be eligible for the waiver rule. Bonus payments for Maryland-breds may be temporarily discontinued once the meet resumes.