With the loss of a purse supplement from the state and soft business in recent years, the operators of Maryland's thoroughbred racetracks repeatedly have cut into their once formidable stakes program when looking for cost savings. The exception is the marquee Pimlico spring meet, which opens tomorrow.
In eight weeks of racing, Pimlico will offer 26 stakes races worth a total of $2.92 million. The centerpiece, of course, is the Grade I $1 million Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, on May 21.
Pimlico opens a little more than a week after the state's struggling racing industry watched another legislative session conclude without the signing of a bill legalizing slot machines. The Maryland House of Representatives and Senate each passed bills during the session that would have placed machines at, among other sites, Laurel Park, but failed to negotiate a compromise agreement to make them law.
"What does it mean? We're going to have to sit back and figure where we go from here as an industry," said Jim Gagliano, executive vice president of Maryland racing operations for Magna Entertainment, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park. "One thing we can't change is there is a huge and mounting storm cloud of competition that could be devastating for racing in Maryland."
Pimlico and Laurel remain locked in a fight for patrons and horses with two neighboring tracks fueled by on-site slot machines: Delaware Park, which opens April 30 for a 135-day meet, runs a high-end racing program rich in stakes races; Charles Town, racing year-round in West Virginia, offers more money than Maryland tracks for lower-quality horses even after a recent 40 percent purse cut by the state.
Pressure will grow further when racetracks in Pennsylvania, where slots are now legal, have their alternative gaming programs up and running.
Meantime, however, Pimlico opens with across-the-board purse hikes -- as much as $3,000 more per race -- the result of an underpayment of approximately $2.7 million in purses the past year.
While welcome, the purse hike "is not because of prosperity," said Chief Operating Officer Lou Raffetto. "We reduced from the 220 days we'd run [a year] down to 197 in 2004. We accrued an underpayment in the purse account."
The underpayment allows the Maryland Jockey Club, for example, to raise purses for $7,500 claiming races from $9,500 to $12,000 and high-level allowance races from $30,000 to $33,000.
"It's pure voodoo economics," said Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We took it out of our own hides. For the last 1 1/2 years, we've cut stakes, cut races and cut days. With all the cuts, there's a surplus. It's not because the business is good."
Still, the purse hikes can only help racing secretary Georganne Hale, who will try to fill races with the approximately 2,000 horses on the grounds at Pimlico, Laurel and the Bowie Training Center.
"And the [opening of the] turf will help big time," Hale said. "Hopefully the babies [races for 2-year-olds] are coming, too."
The state legislature did grant one victory to Maryland racing, passing an emergency bill freeing up $1.04 million from a dormant Racing Facility Redevelopment Bond Fund, which largely will go toward funding the historic $500,000 Pimlico Special, one of only three Grade I races in the state.
The Special, paid for out-of-pocket last year by Magna after Maryland horsemen balked at funding the race with the general purse account, will receive $940,429 from the legislation, while $135,660 is earmarked for purses at the Rosecroft Raceway harness track.
The bond fund, created in 2000 with an increase by the tracks in the percentage taken from each dollar wagered, was supposed to raise money for capital improvements. The tracks were to submit proposals for upgrades to the state's Stadium Authority and then use proceeds from bonds issued by the Maryland Economic Development Corp.
The bonds, however, never were issued and the money from the increased takeout -- along with money from uncashed betting tickets -- accrued unused.
While the bond fund has been closed, the takeout has not been changed.
Racing Notes: Eric Camacho, a 21-year-old apprentice jockey, won the winter meet riding title on the new Laurel dirt track with 60 victories, besting veteran star Ramon Dominguez by two. Kenny Cox, training mostly for leading owner Michael Gill, won the training title with 32 victories, three ahead of John Rigattieri, who will return to his home base in New England this spring.