Race tracks' attendance and handle figures usually are of little interest to their customers. Who cares how much money a wealthy track owner is making?
But the success of the current meeting at Laurel, which ends Sunday, has to hearten every racing fan, because the numbers have a significance that transcends dollars and cents. They show that Maryland racing, which had looked moribund little more than a year ago, is returning to health.
Year after year, the business of Maryland's tracks steadily had declined, as once-loyal fans were alienated by the poor physical facilities and the indifference of the managements. In the early 1970s, Laurel's average daily attendance was around 9,000 a day. By the early 1980s, the crowds had shrunk to 8,000 a day. When John Schapiro finally sold his track to Frank DeFrancis, attendance had dwindled to nearly 7,000 a day, and it appeared that major league racing was not going to survive in Maryland.
But now that this long Laurel meeting has drawn an average daily attendance of more than 7,700, and a robust average handle of $1.1 million, it seems safe to say that the long downward trend finally has been reversed.
This is the doing of Maryland's governor and legislators, who recognized the severity of the industry's problems and passed a significant tax-relief measure last year to help it. And it is the doing of DeFrancis, who took that largesse from the state and employed it in a wonderfully creative fashion by building the Sports Palace.
Unlike most race track executives, DeFrancis acknowledges he is in the gambling business. It may be nice to attract college students and social clubs and families for a pleasant day at the races, but a track needs serious bettors, and Maryland had been losing them. DeFrancis built the Sports Palace to lure them back.
The giant screens showing football games and the Las Vegas sports wire are clearly there to appeal to action guys. The videotape library of all the races run at Laurel appeals to serious handicappers. Even the menu in the Sports Palace fits into the concept. Hard-core bettors want to gulp down a platter of nachos or a sandwich, not linger over a fancy meal. The whole idea worked: It had been years since I saw such concentrations of hard-core players at a Maryland track.
Not only is it well-conceived, but the Sports Palace is, quite simply, a pleasant place. I never used to take friends who weren't hard-core gamblers to Mayland tracks because the facilities were so dreadful. Even the supposedly "classy" sections, the clubhouse dining rooms, were characterized by indifferent decor, indifferent food and lousy service. But the Sports Palace is attractive, comfortable and well-run, and only a quibbler would point out that you never get to see a live horse while you're there.
What is so heartening about the Sports Palace is that it is just the beginning of a long-range improvement for racing in the state. "We know we can't rest on our laurels," DeFrancis said. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and we've just taken the first step. We're going to keep on improving the facilities, and the quality of racing."
The continued resurgence of Maryland racing depends a lot, too, on Pimlico, which opens a long meeting on Monday. A strong year-round racing schedule sustains fans' interest, which is what has happened in the booming Maryland harness industry. Conversely, one lousy track (like Bowie) can sour fans on the whole sport.
It remains to be seen whether Pimlico will put its funds to use as effectively as Laurel has. Certainly, the Baltimore track has plenty of ramshackle sections that would benefit from refurbishing. But after so many years when racing fans could only moan about all the things that were wrong with Maryland racing, we now can savor the experience of wondering what new, positive changes are near.