The reason for the change is the long-awaited infusion of revenue from slot machines into purse money. Since the Maryland Live! Casino has gone into full-scale action, with its 4,750 slots at Arundel Mills, purses at Laurel have shot up from $185,000 per day last year to $245,000 at the current meeting. As more casinos operate in the state — one in Baltimore is scheduled to open in 2014 — the purses will be even more robust.
When people in the industry gather at Laurel on Saturday for the 27th Maryland Million, the event that showcases offspring of the state’s stallions, they will be talking hopefully about the future for the first time since the thoroughbred business virtually collapsed.
Country Life Farm in Bel Air used to be home to as many as eight stallions, including Maryland’s six-time leading sire, Allen’s Prospect. As the sport suffered, the farm’s stallion population dropped to zero. But now Mike and Josh Pons are seeing clients again interested in buying Maryland horses and racing them in the state. Last week the brothers signed the papers to acquire a new stallion for their farm. If the purses at Laurel and Pimlico remain healthy, Mike Pons said, “We can get well again.”
While it is heartening to hear such sentiments, any optimism should be cautious, considering the history of dysfunction in the Maryland racing industry. The sport is not necessarily headed to a prosperous new era, but it is definitely coming to a make-or-break juncture.
As everybody in the industry knows, the sport’s precipitous decline began when neighboring states legalized slots, channeling some revenue from them to horse racing, while Annapolis waited for years to approve the machines. The lucrative purses elsewhere, especially Pennsylvania, lured racehorses and breeding stock from Maryland, where the sport descended into minor league status.
The grandstands at Laurel and Pimlico have been virtually empty, and the Maryland Jockey Club has lost millions of dollars, $20 million in 2010 alone. The MJC can’t afford to maintain two racing facilities plus the training center at Bowie and to conduct long schedules of live racing in front of those empty seats. But when it has sought to pare down its operations and racing calendar, it encountered bitter opposition from horsemen, with whom its relations have been acrimonious for years.