For many years, the greatest distinction of Maryland's racetracks was the lousy way they treated their customers. Track officials were oblivious to the needs and wishes of horseplayers. They seemed to look on bettors with contempt.
So it is stunning to see what is happening in the state now. The Maryland tracks not only have answered some of the old complaints, they are initiating changes that tracks around the country eventually will emulate.
Instead of reciting the same old complaints about Maryland racing, horseplayers here now can count their blessings:
Any serious handicapper in America would love to have access to something like the "Pimlico Playbacks," but the concept is unique to Maryland. Around the track there are 10 consoles with a television screen and a telephone. A customer can see the films of any race from any previous day simply by picking up the phone and asking for it. Laurel pioneered this idea, but offered these replays only in its pricey Sports Palace. Pimlico makes the films available to everybody, and they are an invaluable handicapping tool.
"We are getting about 400 requests a day," said Chick Lang Jr., Pimlico's director of publicity. "And when the Pick Six pool is big, the demand is monstrous. We're going to put in more monitors next season."
On these free replays, Pimlico and Laurel give their fans access to the films the stewards use. These films contain important information -- they are the only way to see if a horse has trouble leaving the starting gate -- but only a few tracks make them public. The experience in Maryland has disproved the widespread fear that showing these films to the masses will cause widespread second-guessing of the stewards' decisions.
For years Maryland horseplayers asked the tracks for a shoe board, which would tell which horses are wearing "stickers" on a muddy track. For years managements acted as if the requests were crazy. Now Pimlico shows the names of horses wearing stickers on the television monitors before every race.
Maryland was the first state to make public the names of horses being treated with the drug Lasix. It is the only state in which the racing programs show the date a horse got Lasix for the first time. Other states (such as Kentucky) still make this information the private property of insiders.
By themselves, any of these changes might not be earth-shaking. But together they convey the feeling that management cares about the needs and well-being of the people who bet at their tracks. This change in attitude has helped win back horseplayers who virtually had stopped going to the races in Maryland.
There is plenty left for the industry to do if this resurgence is going to continue.
The Racing Commission should create a system to ensure the accurate reporting of workouts -- the one area in which horseplayers in Maryland still are denied important information.
The tracks, Pimlico in particular, need to keep upgrading their physical facilities. The stewards need to do a more diligent job of supervising the sport and protecting the public.
With the "Pimlico Playbacks," bettors can look at the previous races of horses who win under suspicious circumstances, and see if a jockey employed a hammerlock. It's been happening quite a bit lately. But otherwise, Maryland racing never has seemed healthier, or its future brighter.