If the builders of the $140 million, glass-enclosed Garden State Raceway under construction here are to be believed, the future of horse racing lies in cognac pate.
Cognac pate, smoked salmon, rack of lamb and quail with currants are among the luxury items to be served at the plush new race track a few minutes' drive from Philadelphia. Its owners believe that such a menu will lure upper-income sports fans and the best available horses, trainers and riders -- many, Marylanders fear, from their state.
Garden State's scheduled opening April 1 is one of the major reasons Maryland's multi-million-dollar thoroughbred horse racing industry has come before the General Assembly in full force this year, seeking tax relief and, according to Racing Secretary Lawrence Abbundi, "some recognition that this is not just a revenue raiser for the state, that this is an industry that employs a lot of people."
In a state where racing has lived under a cloud of political scandal for years -- State Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore city) said the industry "has a reputation for being venal" -- this year's racing bill is even included in the package of bills endorsed by a governor who is a critic of gambling.
By most measures, Maryland racing, especially thoroughbred racing, is in trouble. Although the industry continues to be known as Maryland's third largest, generating $905 million in cash and employing up to 17,000 people, the number of visitors at races on an average day has dropped.
Attendance at thoroughbred meets has declined from an average of 10,000 per racing day in 1970 to 7,500 in 1983, according to racing commission statistics, while the number attending harness track meets has declined from 4,100 in 1970 to 3,700 in 1983.
With diminishing attendance has come a drop in the amount wagered at the tracks each day. That amount, known as the "handle," is the revenue source that fuels the industry, providing funds to pay purses -- or the amount the leading horses win in a race -- as well as track owners, trainers, breeders and riders, and the myriad grooms, valets and others who comprise the racing world.
The reasons for the problems are complex, say most industry observers, and they are not limited to Maryland. "The trends nationally are down. . . .We've got either static or declining attendance at our tracks as well," said Harold Handel, executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission, which supervises one of the most profitable racing operations in the country.
Said E. William Furey, a Montgomery County lawyer who chairs Maryland's Racing Commission, "Competition in its broadest sense comes from the lotteries and from Atlantic City casinos . Those are gambling dollars. We're talking about people who are going to risk money to get dollars. That's a finite number."
With widely expanded major league sports team schedules, television and other entertainment choices, racing must work hard to maintain a share of leisure time interest, particularly with young people, according to Sam Anzalone, general manager of the highly successful Meadowlands complex in Secaucus, N.J. To attract them, the Meadowlands offers rock concerts on summer evenings and giveaways such as plates and glassware, as well as dining choices ranging from hot dogs to whole suckling pigs.
"I wouldn't go to any other track," said Meadowlands patron Jim McGuigan on a recent night. After a dinner of filet mignon in the Meadowlands deluxe Pegasus restaurant he wagered "small bets, you know $5" on drivers with Irish names and horses whose colors he liked.
"It's a happening, it's an evening out," he explained. "I like sports overall, but I'd rather watch this than a football game. You don't have to fight the element up here." The "element," otherwise known as "racing types" or, to Garden State stockholder Robert Brennan, "the unemployed degenerate types with nothing else to do," are the customers track owners increasingly say they will trade in for more Jim McGuigans.
Maryland has its particular problems, ranging from what some consider unattractive and poorly maintained facilities to political unpopularity because of a scandal involving former governor Marvin Mandel, who was convicted of taking bribes in exchange for helping a race track in which friends had a hidden interest. Longer racing meets in nearby states such as New Jersey, whose tracks pay more money to winning horses, have already skimmed off some of the state's leading horses.
This year, after years of internecine warfare, representatives of different factions within Maryland's thoroughbred industry hammered out a proposal that Gov. Harry Hughes is incorporating into his legislative package this year. Under the plan, the state will reduce daily license fees paid by track owners from $1,000 to $25 and will cut the state's share of the amount wagered at the track each day, from 4.09 percent to half a percent.
If approved by the legislature, the proposal would make $12 million that formerly went to the state available to improve track facilities and purses.
Maryland's harness racing industry received similar considerations three years ago, and industry observers credit the changes with sparking a turnaround in that sport. Increases in the handle at two Maryland harness tracks, Freestate and Rosecroft, led the nation last year.
Despite the big push toward racing relief in the legislature this year, not everyone approves. State Sen. Jack Cade (R-Anne Arundel) said, "I have philosophical objections to it. I don't think it's good social policy for the state to be involved in gambling. But it's fait accompli."
"Racing is for everybody -- the Yuppies, the Guppies. Our problem is to attract more people. They're not aware of what an exciting sport it is," said Al Karwacki, general manager of the Bowie Race Course, which is scheduled to close this year in a move to shore up attendance at the state's other two thoroughbred tracks, Laurel and Baltimore city's Pimlico.
Smaller purses and fewer customers are the key to the racing industry's plight in Maryland and other states where racing is declining. Owners of the first four winners of a race divide the purse. From what they win they pay for the care of the horse and the services of riders and trainers, who pay their own staffs. Purses are tied to the size of the handle. With fewer customers, the handle is declining in Maryland; with a lower handle, winning horses earn less, encouraging their owners to look to other states with more lucrative races.
Howard County resident John Tammaro III, a fourth-generation horse trainer, was one of them.
"I love Maryland -- it's horse country -- but I can't afford to race here," said Tammaro. "The Number One thing is money. You run for so much more money up there" in New York and New Jersey. Tammaro, who trains 25 horses at Bowie and now has six at Garden State, said he can charge Maryland owners only $35 per day for the same work he performs for $41 per day in New Jersey. An inexperienced horse that wins at Laurel is likely to earn a share of a $9,000 purse, he said, versus $11,000 at Keystone in Pennsylvania, and $11,500 at the Meadowlands.
Tammaro now divides his time between Maryland and New Jersey tracks, but when Garden State opens up a year-round racing schedule, "I'll be in New Jersey," he said.
Such talk is music to the ears of Robert Brennan, major stockholder in Garden State, who is best known for starring in commercials touting his securities firm, First Jersey. Brennan's track is unique in that it is a public corporation. As such the complex is fueled by an enormous reserve of cash, which will be used to stage races offering purses that can go as high as $2 million in the Jersey Derby -- conveniently scheduled for a week after Maryland's famed 115-year-old Preakness, the second race in the Triple Crown.
Still, the expectation that the legislature will grant tax relief this year has fired the hopes of racing veterans here.
"I feel very positive about the renaissance of Maryland racing. We're on our way back," said Chick Lang, executive vice president and general manager of Pimlico. The track has hired its first marketing director and increased its advertising budget this year.
"It was like we were on a treadmill. Everything was dull and gray and some of the better horses and riders had left. . . . They saw the facilities elsewhere. It's like going out with Linda Evans and coming back and throwing rocks at your wife," Lang said. "But we're massaging them. We'll get them back. We want to make our places sparkle and glitter too."