Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Low betting prompts revisions to Laurel Park racing schedule

Mid-meet changes include the return of Sunday races

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Laurel Park has changed its live racing schedule in response to an unprofitably low number of bets being made on the races, the Maryland Jockey Club announced last week.

The amended schedule will take effect the week of Feb. 25 and run for seven weeks, until the end of the winter racing meeting. Live races will take place every week Thursday through Sunday, not Wednesday through Saturday as they currently do.

The 15-week stand, the period during which stallions are available for siring services, will now end April 13 rather than April 12, and there will be no live racing on March 23. Instead, there will be a race during the Pimlico Spring Meeting, which starts April 17.

‘‘The handle’s down and we’re trying to find a way to increase it,” said Mike Gathagan, vice president of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club.

Gathagan said an amendment to the racing schedule well into a racing meeting is not unprecedented, but that it has not happened in several years. The last time the schedule was amended, it was also because the betting amount had been low.

Calls to Maryland Jockey Club president and general manager Chris Dragone about the current betting amount were not returned.

‘‘I believe we can get more fans out to the track on a Sunday versus a work day,” Dragone in a statement his organization released last week. ‘‘That is the whole method behind the decision. The football season is wrapped up and we think people might have more time to come out to the track.”

Laurel Park has not had races on Sundays for a year, Gathagan said.

The Maryland Horsebreeder’s Association, which supports the horse breeding industry as economically beneficial to the state, supports the schedule amendment.

‘‘Anything we can do to encourage people to come to the races and get out there is a good thing, we believe,” said Executive Director Cricket Goodall.

But Gathagan said the Jockey Club does not keep figures on attendance numbers because of the free tickets it gives out on weekend days.

Kevin McGhee, chairman of the Laurel Clergy Association and pastor at Bethany Community Church, said he sees the schedule change as a reflection of horse racing’s decline.

‘‘This is indicative of the desperation of the racing industry,” said McGhee, who opposes slots coming to Laurel Park. ‘‘Why are we trying to save this industry based on their track record? They’re not attracting new patrons...horseracing continues to fail.”