When Pimlico opened last week, advertisements in The Post offered free admission and free programs. But at the Laurel simulcast of the Pimlico races -- where virtually every Washington-area horseplayer would go -- the promotion did not apply. And when the Maryland Million was run on Sunday, there were promotions and giveaways galore for the fans at Pimlico, but merely business as usual for those at Laurel.
At a simulcast, as we all know by now, business as usual means that bettors won't be able to get quite as much information as they do at the "live" track. (For example, people at Pimlico get to see the important head-on views of the day's races at replay centers. At Laurel they don't).
At a simulcast, customers who want to have a civilized lunch will have to settle for a salad or a sandwich. (When a venturesome but naive customer in the Laurel Sports Palace recently ordered a chicken filet sandwich, the waitress said, "Oh, a frisbee," and explained that the chicken is cooked in the morning and sits all day, developing the texture that accounts for the nickname.)
In one respect, however, horseplayers who attend Maryland simulcasts are treated equally. Admission to Laurel's grandstand is $3 -- just the same as the charge for live racing -- although parking is free. By contrast, the admission cost at the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park is $1; at Aqueduct, $2; Del Mar, $2.
Because the management of Maryland's tracks is so enlightened, so fan-oriented, so promotion-conscious, it seems incongruous that it doesn't court customers for simulcasts. The attitude may stem from the ambivalent attitude that Frank De Francis held toward intertrack betting.
The late president of Pimlico and Laurel always strove to put on an exciting show, and he knew that enthusiastic crowds begat more enthusiasm. He worried that intertrack betting would detract from the vitality of the live product. It was long after other states had demonstrated the potential of simulcasting and after his own partners had began to push for the innovation that De Francis agreed to experiment with intertrack betting.
Of course, simulcasting between Pimlico and Laurel was an immediate and spectacular success. Anybody who lives in the Washington area will be daunted by the prospect of a drive to Pimlico, which can involve battling traffic on two Beltways. But Laurel is so convenient that many Washingtonians can take a long lunch hour and catch the daily double. As a result, said general manager Jim Mango, wagering at Laurel each day accounts for 42 to 46 percent of the total handle on Pimlico's races.
However, the management feels that the people who attend simulcasting are basically hard-core horseplayers who don't need any special enticements to go there. That's why there are no promotions directed at the simulcast facility.
"With a promotion," said Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico, "we are trying to attract a marginal fan -- not a devoted racetrack follower. You may entice them to come to the track but I think it's unlikely to persuade those people to come to simulcasting."
These hard-core players presumably require fewer frills. De Francis noted that Laurel attempted to offer full-service dining at its simulcasts earlier this year, but customers' response was poor.
Of course, if management assumes that simulcasts will only attract hard-core types and operates the simulcast facility accordingly, the assumption will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But in many other states, simulcasting is being used to bring the sport to a new audience.
Philadelphia Park, for example, has recently opened an off-track betting facility in the downtown financial district; it has marble floors, plush carpeting and an upscale dining room. "They've gotten a tremendous amount of new blood," said turf writer Dick Jerardi. "The place is full of people wearing coats and ties."
Illinois' off-track betting is similarly luring new audiences to simulcast facilities. The notion that casual fans and new fans can only be attracted by the clippety-clop of live horses is old-fashioned thinking.
I will admit that complaints about the simulcast operations in Maryland may reflect the fact that horseplayers here have gotten so spoiled. There are no better intertrack betting facilities in the country than the Sports Palaces at Laurel and Pimlico. The video-replay centers and computer terminals in them are luxuries that few horseplayers anywhere enjoy. And even amid the generally dismal food offerings, the $10.40 shrimp salad in the Laurel Sports Palace is one of the best buys in town.
But there is something about management's view of simulcasting that is disquietingly familiar. There seems to be an attitude that management doesn't have to do anything special for its customers, because they are such hard-core horseplayers that they will come regardless. And that is precisely the attitude that characterized the bad old days of Maryland racing (i.e., the pre-De Francis era) and that brought the sport to the brink of disaster.