Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

Maryland racing gets its opportunity

First the news. Last month, Maryland’s state legislature – 41 votes for to six against in the Senate and 105-32 in the House of Delegates – passed H.B. 1524 to make the Pimlico Plus plan a reality for the future of Maryland’s Thoroughbred industry.

The move triggers:

• The transfer of Pimlico Race Course by 1/ST Racing to the state of Maryland.

• The eventual closure of Laurel Park racetrack.

• The complete overhaul/revitalization of Pimlico as a year-round racetrack, training facility and home of the Preakness Stakes.

• The land acquisition and creation of a year-round training center, at a site yet to be selected, also owned by the state.

• The creation of a not-for-profit management company overseeing racing.

• The issuing of up to $400 million in bonds to pay for it all and paid back over 30 years with revenue already allocated to racing as part of state gaming law.

Plenty of finer details come along with all that, but those are the basics, assuming Gov. Wes Moore signs the bill into law. The Moore administration created the Maryland Thor­oughbred Racetrack Operating Authority last year, and charged it with finding a way forward, so his signature is expected. Anyone up for a Preakness Week signing ceremony at Pimlico? Can I get a pen?

And now the details. Throughout much of this process, leaders called Pimlico Plus a chance for racing to bet on itself instead of trying to work with a for-profit company to make it all work. Maryland’s racing landscape is complicated, with no slot machines or other forms of gaming at the tracks but a connection between slots and the purse account, breeders’/owners’ incentives and facility-upgrade funding. That structure basically puts owners, trainers and breeders in partnership with racetrack ownership, even if their aims don’t always mesh and the incentives of said partnership aren’t always clear. Maryland’s horsemen supported operations at the track with $11 million annually to ensure a longer schedule of live racing, for example.

In its work last year, the MTROA studied various alternative models and listened to experts and industry leaders about the future. Officials of the Maryland Jockey Club and parent company 1/ST Racing said the company struggled to make its business profitable and presented a vision of fewer racing days, higher individual race purses and a larger share of slots support. 

Horsemen and breeders didn’t agree with that vision and put forth a model with more live racing and a not-for-profit operator.

After examining those and other presentations, the MTROA put forth Pimlico Plus and worked out agreements with 1/ST. That felt like a monumental step. Next came the bill. Another big leap. Legislators talked about it in hearings, and ultimately amended it to satisfy Standardbred interests, include local representation on the not-for-profit board and earmark 10 percent of potential profits generated to assist the area of Baltimore near Pimlico. 

And now the future. The new operating company, overseen by the MTROA, will keep the Maryland Jockey Club name and eventually take over the management of everyday racing, the training center and the Preakness. 

Pimlico Plus will give Maryland a new racing facility and a new training facility. Owners and trainers will have more input than ever. Breeders will have stability. Baltimore will have another world-class sporting/entertainment venue to go with the Orioles and Ravens stadiums.

Racing loses some history in the demise of Laurel Park and the complete reconstruction of Pimlico. Both steps have been coming for some time, however, as neither facility is good enough anymore. I’ll miss both, but I’ll also welcome the chance to go racing at a new track and watch horses train at a new venue. 

Draw it all out another step and the structure is in place for the MTROA and the management company to address other pieces of Maryland’s racing future such as Fair Hill’s unused turf course, Timonium’s underused racetrack, the underfunded Maryland Million program, the (for now) four National Steeplechase Association meets in the state and, who knows, some future racetrack someone wants to create.

Much work remains – be it construction, vision, structure, management, personnel, scheduling, budgeting, you name it – but the potential for success is there. 

Bet on it.

Diving into the new year

Happy New Year. It’s 2024. Got resolutions? This year, I resolve to have a concrete idea for each of these columns – a subject, a point, a declaration, an opinion. 

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Stable tour magic at Breeders' Cup

Over and over, Bill Mott opened a stall screen and made an introduction. “Racehorse, meet this guy Joe,” the Hall of Fame trainer said without opening his mouth or actually saying anything. “Joe, meet this racehorse.” 

Late on a Wednesday morning toward the end of the season at Saratoga Race Course this summer, Mott fulfilled his Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour duties for The Saratoga Special newspaper. I was a last-minute substitute for my brother, stuck in a Saratoga rental while staring at a positive Covid-19 test. Sean was out, I was in. And Mott was on. We think he might prefer to be anywhere else. We also think he enjoys it. 

We visited 33 horses counting stable pony Bugsy, I put together the Stable Tour for the final edition of 2023 – readers love it – and didn’t think much about it from there.

Until Breeders’ Cup Weekend at Santa Anita Park, where tour subjects Cody’s Wish, Elite Power and Just F Y I won. Each might be a champion this year and each prodded a little something from Mott back in late August.

• Just F Y I: The 2-year-old filly won her debut by a head four days earlier, on Travers Day. Her neighbor, Munny Rockette, lost her debut six days before that. Mott tried to make sense of training 2-year-olds. With a nod toward one and then the other, he said, “She won and she didn’t, but if you’d have asked me beforehand who’s better, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. It’s all what situation it is, who they’re in against, a lot of things. They both ran well. She won and the other one didn’t. She’s got feet like this [hands six inches apart] and you’d think, ‘Well, maybe she’s going to have to have grass’ but she never worked like she did.”

She didn’t. George Krikorian’s homebred daughter of Justify won Aqueduct’s Frizette Stakes-G1 in October and then blitzed 11 rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies-G1.

• Elite Power: Champion male sprinter of 2022 had his eight-race winning streak snapped by Gunite in the Forego Stakes-G1 four days prior, but didn’t seem to care. The chestnut met Mott at the door and filled it with a broad head. “Don’t trust him too much. He’s tough. You go into catch him . . . the grooms bribe him with carrots but if you go in there without them, he can be pretty tough on you. The winner came back quick too out of the same race, but . . . coming back quick . . . slow pace . . . we gave the winner six pounds. You can make some excuses or reasons [for the defeat]. I think the pace probably worked against him.”

Mott pondered next steps for the son of Curlin, then pretty much agreed not to run him until the Breeders’ Cup more than two months in the future. Elite Power stayed at Saratoga, didn’t breeze for a month, cranked back into form with four workouts on the Oklahoma Training Track and ousted Gunite to repeat in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1.

• Cody’s Wish: The horse of the year (lowercase) if not the Horse of the Year in 2023, you know him because of his success and his improbable connection to young Kentuckian and namesake Cody Dorman. Mott cracked half a smile and made an unnecessary introduction. “You know this one? Here, put your hand in here and see what happens.” Cody’s Wish looked at once like a man-eating dragon and a biscuit-begging Labrador, but I didn’t move my hand. Four weeks back, Mott tried to stretch the son of Curlin to 11⁄8 miles in the Whitney Stakes-G1, only to see his winning streak stopped by White Abarrio. Mott considered the decision and what would come next. “We tried something different . . . There were some suspicions that it wasn’t his best distance and it turned out that way. I guess I could have waited for the Forego, but I had the other horse for that. It was just kind of thinking that if he was able to win the Met Mile and the Whitney, that would be pretty special. What else could you expect?” 

In a word, nothing. Unbothered by the defeat (or our visit), Cody’s Wish went back to work at Saratoga, won the Vosburgh Stakes-G2 at Aqueduct Oct. 1 and added a second consecutive Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile-G1 to further extend a magical career that reached far beyond racing. 

In late August, the tour felt like a respite from a stormy year complete with deaths on the racetrack at Saratoga, a confusing launch of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a contracting industry with smaller foal crops and all the uncertainty in the Mid-Atlantic. For an hour, I walked the shedrow and listened to a master’s-level class about training. 

Mott found individuality in, and talked about ways to unlock the potential of, each horse whether it was unraced 2-year-old Knightsbridge (a blowout debut winner in November) or 9-year-old turf icon Channel Maker (now part of the herd at Old Friends retirement farm). 

In the moment, I thought I was lucky. I really had no idea.

Racing people press on in face of challenges

Maybe it’s happenstance, but when a Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale goes well, Boyd Browning gives regional director Paget Bennett the honor of talking to the media afterward. When things don’t go so well, or are a little off for one reason or another, the Kentucky-based president and CEO takes the reins.

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Saratoga 2023 shocks can spur improvement

In shock. That’s probably the best answer to the question of how racing people felt as the 2023 racing season at Saratoga Race Course ended. I’ll assume it wasn’t all that different from how people felt at Churchill Downs in the spring. And I know it’s the same feeling people walked away from the 2023 Preakness Day at Pimlico. 

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