A Maryland horseplayer who visits a Florida race track feels as if he has left purgatory and arrived at the gates of heaven.
It's not just that Gulfstream Park, which opened its season Monday, is blessed by the proximity of palm trees and blue skies. Or even that Gulfstream offers a higher calibe of racing. What most differentiates Florida from Maryland is the philsophy of the people who run the sport and their manner of treating their customers.
When a bettor goes to Bowie, pays $3 to park his car in the clubhouse lot and $4 for admission and then searches in vain for a decent, comfortable place to watch the races, he knows all he needs to know about the management. Bowie's indifference to its customers is undisguised. The track knows that it is offering the only game in town, and the average horseplayer must either withstand its indignities or stay at home.
A Miami track that adopted wuch an attitude would die a swift death. In the pari-mutuel capital of the nation, a bettor has a daily choice among two dog tracks, two jai-alai frotons, a harness track and a thoroughbred track for his gambling entertainment. So these establishments have to compete with each other for customers. And they compete by trying to offer better attractions at smaller prices than their rivals.
A visitor to Hollywood's greyhound track pays 50 cents for parking and 50 cents for admission and finds a comfortable seat in a spacious, pleasant grandstand. For an additional $2 he can have a box seat in the carpeted clubhouse. With such inducements, the dog track's matinee programs can lure patrons away from the thoroughbreds. Gulfstream and Hialeah have to be resplendent -- with their infield links, their flowers and royal palms, their well-manicured grounds -- merely to meet the competition.
A true gambler may be oblivious to such niceties. I have braved blizzards to sit in such ramshackle facilities as Narragansett Park because I love to play the horses. But I won't do it at Bowie. While I might be able to tolerate the physical facilities, I cannot stand the boring sameness of the racing.
The dominance of trainers King Leatherbury, Buddy Delp and Dick Dutrow is not only unfair; it is stupefying dull. A Maryland horseplayer rarely opens his Racing Form eager to take on the challenge of handicapping the card because he's seen it all before. In a typical Marland race, the Delp horse is 8-5, Dutrow is 2-1, and Leatherbury is 5-2. The bettor has to guess which one will be waking up today.
A nonhandicapper may not be able to appreciate the sensation, but in Florida I feel a quiver of excitement when I open a virginal Racing Form. There is an abundance of strong stables here, coming from far-flung parts of the country and limited to moderate size, which insures competitive, varied racing. It is a joy to handicap a field of 12 evenly matched allowance horses, none of whom are trained by Dutrow, Delp or Leatherbury.
Of course, Florida has the advantage of a very large horse population and high purses. But Maryland suffers from no shortages of thoroughbreds or money. Other states with considerably fewer resources manage to put on more interesting racing.
Maryland needs track owners or racing commissioners who realize it is in their ultimate interest to give the betting public what it needs and wants: good facilities and good racing. But as long as the tracks feel that they can treat their captive audience with indifference there probably will be no changes. As long as the status quo in Maryland exists, I, for one, will try to do my gambling elsewhere.