If the thoroughbred racing world were governed by reason and the laws of economics, its future would be relatively easy to foresee.
The industry would contract in some respects, with the sport conducted at fewer tracks, but it would reach more people, through off-track betting, "teletracks," and cable television.
But as Marylanders have learned in vivid fashion, logic and common sense do not dictate what happens in the industry. Politicians do. And the recent demise of a racing bill in the State Senate makes racing officials understandably hesitant to predict the future of the sport.
"For the first time in Maryland racing history we had the breeders, the horsemen, the racing associations and the governor behind a racing bill, and we still ran into a brick wall," said Pimlico's general manager, Chick Lang. "You can't even talk about any progress or any change other than going downhill unless the legislature stops being so nearsighted."
John D. Schapiro, Laurel president, echoed this gloomy sentiment. "There can be no talk of progress five or 10 years from now as long as states like Maryland are so parasitic," he said. "It's a bloody crime what's happened in the legislature."
The uncertain direction of the political winds in Annapolis further clouds the future of the industry. Earlier this year the state seemed to be moving toward shutting down Bowie and Timonium, and conducting all the racing at Laurel and Pimlico.
Then there was a move toward a state takeover of Bowie, which might have been the first step toward a takeover of the whole industry. The next move may be toward legalized off-track betting in Maryland. Gov. Hughes is reportdly preparing to appoint a commission to study the feasibility of OTB. These diverse actions suggest correctly that Maryland's politicains have no clear vision of the sport's future.
But as nearsighted and lacking in vision as the legislators may be, they may well be swept along in a nation-wide trend toward the legalization of off-track betting.
It is an idea whose time has come. In fact, it was an idea whose time had come in the early 1970s, when New York City created America's first OTB operation. But it was so badly conceived, and did such harm to the business of the New York Racing Association tracks, that racing officials across the country perceived off-track betting as a threat. It has taken the better part of a decade for them to realize that OTB can be a boon as long as the tracks and the horsemen get their fair share of the revenue.
OTB could take many possible forms. It could resemble the system in New York, a network of neighborhood betting shops. It could conceivably resemble the Call-a-Bet system introduced this winter at Louisville Downs; customers open a wagering account, telephone their bets directly to the track and then watch the races on cable television.
Fendall Clagett, head of the Maryland Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, envisions telecasting races from one Maryland track to the tracks that are idle. If Laurel is operating, Baltimore residents could place bets at Pimlico and watch the races on a giant screen there.
If there is a certainty about the future of American racing, it is that the number of tracks will shrink. Current economic conditions have made it very expensive to operate both racetracks and racing stables -- especially at the lower end of the sport.
High-quality racing for high purses may be conducted at a few tracks that are the core of a national OTB system. Lesser tracks may pass out of existence or be converted into dogracing operations, since the overhead required to run them is so much lower. In this area, Timonium's days are probably numberd. Charles Town will probably die as soon as Maryland legalizes Sunday racing (taking away the West Virginia tracks one competitive advantage).
The move to "consolidate" all Maryland racing at Laurel and Pimlico has failed so often that there is no reason to think it will occur in the immediate future. An equally plausible vision of the future is the creation of a supertrack as part of a large sports complex.
But, of course, such a project would require the state legislature to employ some intelligence and forsight, and nobody in the thoroughbred racing industry will bet too much on that.
The state also licenses three harness-racing tracks, including Rosecroft and Freestate in the Washington-area. And, where the thoroughbred owners are bemoaning their industry, the presidents of the two harness-racing tracks see a breakthrough just over the horizon.
Earle Palmer Brown, who runs Rosecroft and a local advertising agency bearing his name, predicts that harness-racing will take off with the advent of off-track betting.This year, each of the state's three standardbred tracks have 85 days of racing, with Ocean Downs transferring 10 of those to Freestate.
A bill that is expected to be reintroduced in the legislature next year will seek 90 additional harness dates and Sunday racing at Freestate. That would mean virtual year-round harness racing in a state that as recently as a decade ago had only 14 weeks total at Rosecroft and Laurel Raceway, as it was known before Frank J. De Francis brought the scandal-ridden track last year and renamed it Freestate.
With year-around racing, Rosecroft's Brown envisions "the logical way is to consolidate with two super plants operating all year," ala the Meadowlands in New Jersey where harness racing consistently outdraws the throughbreds. Brown suggests one track operating in the Washington area -- his -- and another in Baltimore -- Pimlico. Under his plan Rosecroft would race Bowie's thoroughbred dates and Pimlico would race Freestate's harness dates.
"There's no reason why they can't merge," Brown said. "It uneconomical to stay empty half of the year."
Said De Francis, who is new to harness racing but not Maryland politics: "Conceptually it (consolidation) is a fine idea. But whether it can be brought about is another thing. There's a difference between doing it philosophically and realistically. I don't think it is too probable."
Both Rosecroft and Freestate continue to improve their plants. Rosecroft currently has plans for a $1 million addition to its clubhouse, a move that would give that new part of the plant its own "grandstand" area and eliminate the need to winterize the old grandstand which, when built, was used only for harness racing in warm weather.
At Laurel, De Francis has tried to improve a dilapidated plant where a former executive was charged with arson in trying to burn down the clubhouse and Joe Shamy, the owner prior to De Francis, has been convicted in federal court of racketeering and fraud charges involving more than $1 million in track funds.
De Francis has made cosmetic and administrative changes, striving to aid both the spectator and the horsemen.He has added art to the clubhouse, shuttles from the parking lot to the entrances, television monitors at 100 tables in the dining room and "star boxes" to the clubhouse, something along the lines of luxury sky boxes in stadiums and arenas.
"This track has survived and done relatively well with less than maximum concern for the horsemen and the spectators," De Francis said. "Five years from now, it will shock you where we'll be."
He and Brown apparently are willing to bet more on the legislature doing something progressive than their brethren in the thoroughbred industry.