The outlook for starting Pimlico's meeting on Monday, as scheduled, is bleak," said the track's general manager, Chick Lang, unless somebody pulls a rabbit out of a hat."
Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel ordinarily could be expected to do something clever, given the current strike by racetrack employees against Bowie, Pimlico and Laurel. Mandel is knowledgeable in racing matters.
"The union forgets we are not one of their food markets, that we are a buiness regulated by government where increased costs cannot automatically be turned over to the consumer," said Al Karwacki, Bowie's general manager.
Most segments of the Maryland racing industry are annoyed with Mandel for his apparent lack of interest in their fiscal crisis. That is amusing, because when the governor tried to help the sport's shaky future with a consolidation program and legalized offtrack betting, not too many years ago, the horse industry opposed him.
Now predictably, the tracks have fallen upon hard times except for Pimlico. Bowie and Laurel want to be bailed out by the bettors. Oh, they don't come right out and admit as much. They talk of an industry bill before the state legislature that asks the state to give up 1 per cent of its share of the takeout in order to help the purse structure and the track owners.
The industry's back-up position would be to agree, however "reluctantly," to a 1 per cent increase gained by jumping the total takeout from 15 to 16 per cent on basic bets and from 16 to 17 per cent (or higher) on multiple pools.
They would agree to this even though the low takeout in Maryland, compared to the usurious rates in neighboring states, is what attracts many bettors to area tracks.
That means the bettors would foot the bill for the track employee's pay raise had improved health and welfare benefits. Just as surely as this sort of relief was granted by Annapolis, Laurel and Bowie would be back two or three years from now pleading poverty again.
This strike should tell everybody something about the health of Maryland racing. Pimlico can afford to give the emploees a sizeable increase. Bowie's operation is marginal. Laurel is destitute. The reason is simple: Pimlico has superior management and a dedication to providing better racing.
It was Pimlico that lined up the sensational apprentice, Steve Cauthen, for opening day, after Laurel and Bowie had acted as though the 16-year-old jockey didn't exist. Pimlico has built the Preakness into a great attraction while Laurel stumbles about with the Washington, D.C. International and Bowie is, well, just Bowie.
Regrettably, it is the trainers and the owners who will be hurt the most as the length of this strike increases. The cost of keeping a horse is just as high as it was last Friday when Bowie was open.
But Pimlico is not about to break away from Bowie and Laurel to negotiate a separate settlement.
"Our united from will not weaken," Lang assured. "We will negotiate collectively, even though e are considered the fat cat. If Bowie and Laurel can't afford to meet the union's contract demands, we won't either. The three of us are in the same boat."
That is true, up to a point, except that one track has been attempting to plow ahead while, the two others serve as anchors.
It is up to the union and tracks to solve their differences. Maryland has no obligation to help. The state receives only 5.34 per cent of the take, one of the lowest percentages in the country. Bowie and Laurel may contend they need tax relief but why, then, does Pimlico do so nicely working under the same formula that finds the tracks receiving 4.16 per cent?
No one wants to see the strike continue. The horses, however, can use some time off and so can the bettors. And most important, the bettors should not be saddled with a higher tax rate at the mutual window in order to solve the differences between Bowie. Laurel and the union.
Here's hoping Mandel doesn't attempt to pull any rabbits out of hat. If he does, the public will wind up paying for the magic show.