A racing fan who had been in a time warp for the last decade would have been stunned if he visited Laurel Race Course on Saturday. He would have taken one look around and asked: Where are all the people?
The feature race was the Laurel Futurity, the third-biggest event on Maryland's thoroughbred calendar, after the Preakness and the D.C. International. It was part of a good, competitive racing card. The weather was beautiful. And yet, only 10,603 people showed up. It was not so long ago that the average daily attendance at Maryland tracks was larger than that.
What's happened? Officials at the state's thoroughbred tracks cite competition from harness racing, Atlantic City, state lotteries, etc. All this is true. But whenever I travel to out-of-town tracks, I meet plenty of people from the Washington-Baltimore area who tell me they have stopped going to races in their home area. They are still enthusiastic enough about the sport to fly to Belmont for a day or spend a week's vacation at Hialeah, but they won't take a 45-minute drive to Laurel. That's a measure of the extent to which Maryland racing has alienated its customers.
Even people who continue to patronize the tracks regularly are disgruntled. Among the 10,603 at Laurel last Saturday was a contingent from the Baltimore-Washington Thoroughbred Racing Club which held a brunch before the races. The group's president, Bob Goldberg, passed out a questionnaire, asking members what they thought Maryland racing needed most. Sixty-one answered, and (in order) these were their most frequent responses:
1. Renovate and clean tracks' physical facilities.
2. Lower the take from parimutuel-wagering.
3. Mutuel employees should be more courteous.
4. Tracks should conduct more promotions.
5. Legalize off-track betting and inter-track wagering.
6. Report workouts more accurately.
7. Install a shoe board.
Of these suggestions, two are probably unfeasible for political reasons -- reducing the take and legalizing off-track betting -- but the rest constitute a reasonable agenda for Maryland racing.
The overwhelming concern of the fans who answered the poll was the facilities at Maryland tracks. If the industry does get a substantial tax break from the legislature -- something it is seeking now -- that money clearly should be used for some major renovation. Turning the Pimlico grandstand into a tolerable environment will take a substantial investment.
But most of the fans' other complaints and hopes could be answered without a big expenditure. Cleanliness, courteous employees and fan-oriented promotions come as much from the attitude of a track's management as the money it has to spend. All of these virtues are much more readily noticeable at the state's harness tracks. Goldberg said he was struck by the enthusiastic reaction of his club members to the innovations of Freestate Raceway owner Frank DeFrancis -- especially the way he has insisted that employees treat customers with politeness.
The fans' other requests could be easily met, too. It wouldn't take much effort or money to give horseplayers a shoe board. To get a workout-reporting system as good as any in the country would require the state or the tracks to pay clockers' salaries, which could cost $100,000 to $180,000 a year, but that's not much money compared to the $6 million a year the tracks are hoping to get in tax concessions.
While it is important that the tracks do get the funds to make major capital improvements, money alone isn't going to win back the fans who have defected from Maryland racing. The track management has to have the right kind of fan-oriented attitude, which they have not had in the past.
A couple of respondents in the Thoroughbred Racing Club survey offered this suggestion: Let Frank DeFrancis buy the Maryland thoroughbreds tracks. Not a bad idea.