There aren't many sure things in racing, but the plan to telecast Pimlico's races to Laurel and permit betting there is a can't-miss proposition.
Such simulcasting is bringing the whole industry out of its economic doldrums. It has been the salvation of Garden State Park and Penn National; it has been the basis of a dramatic boom in northern California. And it will succeed just as well in Maryland, where geography keeps many people from going to the track.
Even hard-core Washington racing fans -- who may be regulars at Laurel -- are dissuaded from driving to Pimlico by the prospect of coping with two beltways at rush hour. Laurel conducted a marketing study of its customers recently and found that between 70 and 80 percent don't go to Pimlico. Simulcasting will keep them in action during the Pimlico meeting.
Yet, after the Maryland Racing Commission approved six weeks of simulcasting this fall, on an experimental basis, the plan has received a surprising amount of criticism. The Baltimore Sun expressed its reservations, as did a number of legislators in Annapolis.
"The next thing you know," Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore) told The Sun, "you won't even have to go to the track. You'll just go to the corner betting parlor and place your bet."
That, of course, is just the point. Like plenty of other industries, from motion pictures to pizza, racing has learned that it must bring its product to its customers instead of requiring the customers to come to the track. The trend is inevitable, unstoppable.
Yet Frank De Francis, the president of Laurel and Pimlico who is one of the most progressive executives in the business, still has plenty of reservations about the trend. Although his partners, Bob and Tom Manfuso, have been relatively gung-ho for the idea, De Francis has been reluctant to plunge into simulcasting.
One might understand De Francis' objections by visiting Belmont Park on a typical day. Economically, New York racing is very healthy, with big purses and big handles -- most of it generated by simulcasting and off-track betting.
Horseplayers can bet the Belmont races and watch them on television at teletheaters and OTB shops in Manhattan and various simulcasting outlets around the state. There is little reason for a bettor to go to the track, so they don't. Attendance has been dropping year after year, and the typical weekday crowds of 11,000 rattle around the enormous Belmont grandstand, which was constructed for the bygone era when crowds of 50,000 or more were commonplace.
"We made less money in the old days," said Gerald McKeon, president of the New York Racing Association, "but racing was more exciting then than it is now. You lose the flavor of the crowd. It's dull here on weekdays."
McKeon conceded there are other negative aspects to the current trends. People see the declining track attendance and conclude that the sport's popularity is declining when, in fact, its fan base is growing. But, whatever the pros and cons of simulcasting in New York, McKeon said, they are academic now, because the track has come to depend on it for its economic well-being.
"I don't think there can be a reversal," he said. "Racing has a long learning curve. For 15 years, people have been introduced to racing by betting at OTB. Even if OTB were closed, I wouldn't expect all those people to come back to the track. The die is cast."
De Francis doesn't want it cast that way in Maryland. His success at Laurel, Pimlico and Freestate Raceway has been based on the old-fashioned idea of luring customers to your attraction with good facilities and good treatment.
It's worked. A few years ago, a racing fan contemplating a trip to a Maryland track would have been turned off by the knowledge that the place was apt to resemble a ghost town.
But as attendance has rebounded, Laurel and Pimlico have much more of an air of vitality about them, and the success breeds success. This is the kind of feeling a racing fan gets in vibrant racing operations like Santa Anita, Saratoga and Oaklawn Park, but not in tracks that depend heavily on simulcasting.
"I am diametrically opposed to diluting our attendance and handle," De Francis declared. "But we've spent two years compiling figures and analyzing them to death, and now it's time to get some answers about simulcasting that we can only get by our trying it on an experimental basis. We think that by simulcasting from Pimlico to Laurel, we're going to open a whole new market and develop a new fan base."
But even with the prospect of substantially greater business for his tracks, De Francis remains wary: "Racing is in serious trouble if you dilute the excitement. Once that happens, it's the beginning of the end."