MD lawmakers, government officials note importance of horse industry

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Jan. 22, 2020

Maryland lawmakers and other government leaders on Jan. 22 told horse industry stakeholders they support and appreciate their various contributions to the state’s economy and urged them to maintain their legislative advocacy efforts.

More than 20 legislators and government officials spoke during the annual Maryland Horse Industry Day held in the Miller Senate Building in Annapolis, the state capital. An important component of the program—organized by Grow and Fortify, an agriculture advocacy group—is linking equine industry participants with lawmakers in their districts.

“The last 10 years have seen a coming together of this industry here in Maryland,” said Kelly Schulz, Secretary of the Department of Commerce under Gov. Larry Hogan. “Commerce is focused on economic development, and what you do is an attraction for outside interests to come to the state.”

The horse industry, according to surveys, has a $2.1 billion economic impact. With more than 101,000 horses, Maryland is first in the number of horses per square mile. The economic impact of the racing sector alone is $572 million and supports 5,200 jobs.

“Labor and Commerce are collaborating more than ever before,” said Tiffany Robinson, Secretary of the Department of Labor, under which the Maryland Racing Commission falls. “This industry is crucial to our economy in Maryland. I work very closely with (MRC Executive Director) Mike Hopkins. The racing commission has passed new standards for horse safety, and we are thrilled about that.”

Alan Foreman, legal counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and one of the individuals who put together the proposed racing and community revitalization plan for Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said it wouldn’t have been possible without a commitment by the industry to work together about a decade ago.

“This is my 40th year in the industry and my 40th legislative session,” Foreman said. “Nine years ago this industry was on the edge of collapse. We used to come (to Annapolis) and fight every year. The legislators used to hate when we came down here. What has happened in Maryland racing over the last eight years has been nothing less than staggering. We pulled together and we rebuilt this industry.”

The Thoroughbred racing facilities revitalization plan, which relies on existing funds the industry receives from video lottery terminals at the state’s casinos, requires action by the General Assembly. The bill, not yet introduced, would allow horsemen to dedicate a portion of their VLT purse share to support the redevelopment plan and extend the life of the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, which is also funded by VLT revenue. The combined funds would be used by the Maryland Stadium Authority to float bonds to pay for the projects.

“This involves no state money and no taxpayer dollars. The industry is taking its share and reinvesting it,” Foreman said. “We expect the bill to be introduced shortly. My opinion is we will get this done.”

Foreman also touched on sports betting legislation. Bills were introduced during the 2019 General Assembly session but did not progress.

Four bills have been introduced for 2020, two in the House of Delegates and two in the Senate. All of them call for a constitutional amendment via a statewide referendum. The House bills would grant licenses to racetracks and casinos; one Senate bill would do the same, while the other limits licenses to casinos.

The two Senate bills are scheduled for hearings in the Budget and Taxation Committee Jan. 29. The two House bills will be heard in the Ways and Means Committee Feb. 4.

“The worst thing that could happen to us is that we are at a competitive disadvantage,” Foreman said. “What happens if (racing’s) customers want to also bet other sports and have to go somewhere else? It’s in the state’s best interest and in all of our best interests (if racetracks are permitted to have sports betting licenses).”

That has the support of the Maryland Farm Bureau. Colby Ferguson, Government Relations Director for the organization, said he expects the Senate bill to move first during the legislative session. He said the Farm Bureau “wants to make sure tracks and its licensed areas are allowed to have sports betting,” and that educational programs related to agriculture receive some of the revenue from any sports betting program in Maryland.

During the Horse Industry Day program, the Maryland Horse Industry Board presented two of its Touch of Class Awards, one to Dr. Amy Burke of the University of Maryland and the other to Alison O’Dwyer, who guided Fifth Ace to a dressage championship at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in 2019. She is the wife of Laurel Park-based trainer Jerry O’Dwyer.