With support dwindling, Maryland horse racing tracks should adopt shorter schedule

Andrew Beyer
Columnist May 15, 2011

Many of Maryland’s politicial leaders, from Gov. Martin O’Malley to members of the state legislature, will be in attendance at Pimlico on Saturday, and they undoubtedly will be taking credit for actions that “saved” the Preakness Stakes and thoroughbred racing in the state.

When track owners wanted to cut the 2011 racing schedule to the bone, triggering a bitter fight with horsemen, O’Malley brokered a deal that subsidizes the industry this year. The governor said it would “keep Maryland’s historic Preakness Stakes where it belongs.” The legislature last month extended the subsidy for two more years while telling the industry it had to devise a business plan to become self-sufficient.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

Perhaps this is possible. Unfortunately, the Maryland tracks’ dysfunctional owners and its short-sighted horsemen have little chance of agreeing on anything.

Hurt by competition from nearby tracks with slot machines, the quality of racing in Maryland has plummeted, fans have disappeared and betting has declined. (Pimlico this spring introduced the 50-cent Pick Five wager that has been popular around the country. The size of Saturday’s betting pool: a pitiful $3,860.)

The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel Park, fought for years to get slot machines but failed to obtain them when owner Frank Stronach’s management made a disastrous mistake in the bidding process. Without slots, the tracks’ prospects seem almost hopelesss. Laurel has been losing millions of dollars a year and Pimlico is viable only because of the Preakness.

Stronach had sold a 49 percent interest in the tracks to Penn National Gaming Inc. — a company that is primarily interested in slot machines and does not share Stronach’s willingness to lose money on racetrack investments. “From the tracks’ perspective,” said Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club,” the only way to get to profitability requires consolidation.” Thus did the MJC propose cutting the state’s racing schedule from 146 to 47 dates, consolidating most of the racing schedule around a short meeting at Pimlico. When horsemen opposed the plan vehemently, the tracks appeared on the verge of shutting down until O’Malley brokered a solution.

Under the terms of Maryland’s slot-machine legislation, a percentage of all slot revenue in the state is earmarked for the racing industry — some for purse money, some for capital improvements at the tracks. The O’Malley deal diverted the capital-improvement money — up to $6 million a year — to the operating expenses for the Maryland Jockey Club so that it could afford to continue conducting 146 days of racing during the year.

Because of the Preakness’s importance to the state, subsidizing the spring Pimlico meeting serves a public interest. But Maryland taxpayers might reasonably ask why the state should spend millions of dollars so that its racetracks can offer 146 days of racing to which most fans are indifferent. The beneficiaries are the state’s horsemen, who cry that cutting the racing schedule would cause economic havoc, but they have plenty of options to run for ample purses in West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Maryland horsemen’s insistence on a virtual year-round racing schedule flies in the face of the sport’s current realities. America’s successful racetracks are mostly ones that conduct shorter “boutique” meetings. Because of an ever-worsening national horse shortage, even healthy racetracks are reducing their schedules so that the races they offer will have fields large enough to appeal to bettors. The effects of the dwindling thoroughbred population are especially acute in the mid-Atlantic region, where as many as six tracks may operate simultaneously. Even with purses swelled by slot money, the former Philadelphia Park — now named Parx — offers an unappealing product. Delaware Park, despite its slot money, canceled its card last Tuesday because it didn’t have enough horses. Until Sunday’s sixth race, Pimlico hadn’t mustered a field with more than nine starters since May 1.

There is only one way to deal with the horse shortage: run fewer races. Because the mid-Atlantic tracks draw their entrants from the same regional thoroughbred population, they have to cooperate to reduce the quantity of racing in the region.

Thoughtful people within the region understand this — even the ones on opposite sides of the racing wars in Maryland. “Our biggest challenge is that we need to look at the product regionally,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “I think it’s something we have to look at seriously,” Chuckas said.

If I were named czar of the mid-Atlantic region, I’d draw up a master schedule that would include about 80 days of racing in Maryland at two separate meetings in the spring and fall. Ignoring Charles Town and Penn National, which largely operate in their own self-contained universes, my calendar for the six major tracks might look like this:

— Pimlico runs a two-month meeting from mid-March through the Preakness.

— Monmouth (N.J.) opens after the Preakness and runs through Labor Day.

— Maryland resumes racing in September and October. (Ideally this racing would be on Laurel’s excellent turf course, but if it’s unfeasible to keep two tracks in operation, the site would have to be Pimlico).

— Parx conducts a winter meeting from November to March.

— Colonial Downs (Va.) and Delaware divide the period between April and September, running concurrently with Maryland and New Jersey, the only time when two major tracks would operate simultaneously.

A solution along these lines is the only answer for restoring the health of the sport in Maryland and the region, yet it’s unlikely to happen, partly because the industry has no strong leadership and partly because horsemen will resist. Horsemen who compete for purses subsidized by slot money want as many racing opportunities as they can get. They have no economic incentive to care about the quality of the product. If fans don’t watch or bet the races, the slot money is still there.

The pitfall of such thinking is that hard-pressed state governments are already starting to ask why they should spend millions of dollars to support a moribund sport. In Annapolis’s discussions of the Maryland subsidy, Foreman said, many legislators “expressed their disgust with our business.” Track owners and horsemen can’t count on the support of politicians indefinitely. They had better start cooperating and finding a way to save horse racing without public subsidies.

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