Racing fans who have visited Bowie this summer might wonder why the owners of Pimlico, or anybody else in his right mind, would want to buy the place. Not only are the track's facilities as depressing as ever, but its business is hitting a new low.
Yesterday only 4,858 people showed up to watch a dreary racing program.
Yet the Cohen family is willing to spend about $10 million for the track and its 112 racing dates, and unless there is some legal snag the deal is expected to go through. Even people in the racing industry don't know what they have in mind. Would they shut down Bowie and transfer its dates at Pimlico? Would they refurbish Bowie? Would they try to buy Laurel, too, and control the state's entire thoroughbred racing business? Do they have some secret master plan?
Pimlico's general manager, Chick Lang, says no. "Honestly, there is no plan at this time," he insisted, "although I don't think they have any intentions of closing Bowie. But assuming this becomes a reality, things are going to happen.
"When you look at the Cohens' past performances, they've been successful in every business that they have ever run."
What may have motivated Pimlico to take this action at this time--even though Herman Cohen is 87 and Ben Cohen is 83--is the fact that Maryland racing has so much room to grow and so much potential that isn't being tapped.
The time is right, and the political climate is right, to tap it. Here is a state with two major metropolitan areas from which to draw customers; a state with a thriving breeding industry that produces an ample supply of horses; a state whose nearest competitor, Delaware Park, has gone out of business. A race track in such a situation should be drawing more than 4,858 people on a summer day; it should be prospering. And Pimlico's owners expect a course of events that will enable them to do just that:
* Timonium will be shut down. "There's absolutely no need for its existence," Lang said. If the little track outside Baltimore was once a tolerable anachronism, it has now become a detriment to the state's racing industry. At one time Maryland's major stables could send their top horses to Delaware during the summer; now they have nowhere to send them, and some trainers have been threatening to leave the state entirely unless it offers year-round major-league racing. There is such a widespread consensus among politicians and racing people that Timonium should cease to exist that this year will probably be its last. Thus the Cohens would inherit even a greater part of the state's racing calendar.
* The state may help its thoroughbred industry, just as it helped the standardbred industry, by granting it some tax relief. "We need help, and we can't ask John Q. Public to pay for it," Lang said. "We can't raise the take or increase parking or admissions. The state has to relinquish a portion of their takeout to be pumped back into the industry." A few years ago, this would have been wishful thinking. But now the climate in Annapolis seems very favorable for such action.
* Sunday racing will be approved. This is obviously a source of revenue waiting to be tapped--especially since Delaware no longer exists to offer competition on Sundays during the summer.
* Summer racing in the state will start to become decent, and profitable. Traditionally, the quality of the races in Maryland has declined sharply from June through September, and crowds have dropped, too, but there is no reason this has to happen.
With greater purses generated by tax relief and revenues from Sunday racing, Maryland's tracks could present the same caliber of racing in the summer that it does in the winter. And that, Lang said, would strengthen the whole industry.
"If we had year-round racing in proper facilities," he said, "I could go on the road and bring fresh horses and new trainers to Maryland."
Certainly, the state needs freshness of some sort.
Even Lang, one of its most avid boosters, admits that.
"I think Maryland racing has become tired and boring," he said. "It's plain that it needs a shot in the arm." Pimlico's acquisition of Bowie could prove to be the shot it needs.