Just a few years ago, the 10th race on Pimlico's Monday program would have been considered extraordinary: there were no horses on the track. Bettors were pushing $174,000 through the mutuel windows and clustering around television monitors to watch a race being transmitted by satellite from New Jersey.
But events like the simulcast of the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park are becoming commonplace, and they are an increasingly important part of race tracks' business. An industry that once viewed technological innovation with suspicion has begun to embrace simulcasting with wholehearted enthusiasm.
Pimlico's general manager, Chick Lang, embodies the shift in attitude. A self-described racing traditionalist, Lang said: "I never believed in electronic horseplaying -- simulcasting and telephone wagering. I believe in going to events live. But I've changed my mind. This is a way to give our patrons the best racing we can, to let them see and bet on superstars like Snow Chief. God knows where simulcasting can take us; the potential figures are mind-boggling."
Even in the infancy of simulcasting, the numbers are impressive. Two weeks ago, 57 tracks conducted wagering on the Preakness, and Pimlico netted several hundred thousand dollars from the $12.7 million bet on the race across the country.
Pimlico patrons bet about as much on the Jersey Derby as they would on any live race -- but the track didn't have to put up any purse money or incur any of the other expenses that such an event involves. It is easy to understand why Lang and other race track managers are so enthusiastic about this innovation.
They were once wary of simulcasting, and any form of off-track betting, because the country's first experiment with OTB, in New York, had been botched so badly. OTB killed attendance at the tracks and took away revenue that should have been going to horsemen in the form of purse money.
To prevent such problems from arising again, the American Horse Council championed the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 that required that horsemen, track managements and state racing commissions all had to approve future forms of off-track betting. Nobody anticipated it at the time, but the law laid the legal groundwork for simulcasting.
It also allayed the fears of horsemen that simulcasting would cost them money, that tracks would be tempted to substitute televised races for live races. Horsemen fully share in the revenue from simulcasting. The "take" from betting on the Jersey Derby at Pimlico was split 50-50 by Pimlico and Garden State. Of Pimlico's share, half goes to horsemen in the form of future purse money. This has become a fairly standard type of arrangement around the country.
Because simulcasting is relatively new, tracks are bound to encounter some problems while they are getting used to the changes, and Pimlico experienced a number of them Monday. The quality of the television transmission was poor. There was very little time available for betting between the ninth race and the Jersey Derby because the Pimlico card was running late and the track had no control over Garden State's post time.
Worst of all, Garden State informed Pimlico prematurely that the result of the Jersey Derby was official, when in fact a foul claim had been lodged against the second-place finisher, Mogambo. Pimlico had already started to pay off the winning tickets while the foul claim was being adjudicated. If Mogambo had been disqualified, chaos would have ensued.
The glitches in simulcasting will surely be resolved as more and more races are sent from track to track.
While some alarmists worry that the trend may lead to the creation of a few "supertracks" and the disappearance of smaller racing operations, simulcasting is one of the rare developments in the sport that has pleased track owners, horsemen and fans in equal measure.