If harness racing in Maryland hits the skids -- which is very possible -- track owner Mark Vogel will be painted as an arch villain.
He will be reviled the way people in Boston revile Buddy LeRoux, who bought Suffolk Downs and put it out of business to exploit its real estate values; or the way New Yorkers scorn the group that let once-proud Roosevelt Raceway decline and die.
Yes, Rosecroft Raceway has been weakened by Vogel's ownership, by the financial troubles of his real estate holdings and the recent arrest on drug charges that brought many of those troubles to light. And, yes, Vogel made some faulty business decisions. The gut instincts that evidently served him so well for so long in the real estate world led him to make some whopping errors in the racing business. But even if Vogel or some other owner had done everything right, harness racing in Maryland would still be plagued with problems.
When Vogel bought Rosecroft and its sister track, Delmarva Downs, and later added Freestate to control all harness racing in the state, he was filled with genuine enthusiasm and optimism for the project. He hadn't experienced many failures in his career, but there was one big difference between this venture and the real estate development deals he was used to. Real estate usually goes up in price. The national harness racing industry was headed on a steady downward course.
One statistic tells the story: In 1977, attendance at harness tracks was 28 million; this year it will be around 14 million. The sport's problems are legion: competition from other and better forms of gambling, competition from other forms of nighttime entertainment, public concerns about the game's fundamental integrity.
For a while Maryland remained one of the few oases of prosperity in the game, with attractive, well-run facilities and good-quality racing. "When you looked at Maryland, you saw a relatively positive situation," said Tom Aronson of the Racing Resources Group, who worked for Rosecroft as a consultant. "But since then it's taken a series of body blows. The worst of them was intertrack betting. It decimated Freestate."
Laurel Race Course was taking bets on Pimlico races and handling $600,000 a day, competition that obviously was hurting the harness track on the other side of Route 1. Rosecroft was affected too, because many Washingtonians might have gone there instead of making the arduous drive to Pimlico; now wagering on thoroughbreds was available year-round in the Washington market.
Freestate was closed this year -- Vogel had bought only the dates, not the land, which was sold -- and when racing was "consolidated" at Rosecroft, the sport had effectively lost the whole Baltimore market. This was when Rosecroft should have started battling aggressively for its share of the Washington-area market. But this was when the real estate industry around the country, and Vogel's operations, were beset with problems.
When Rosecroft probably should have been using its revenues to bolster its position, Vogel needed this money to shore up his other interests. When Rosecroft should have been advertising and promoting more, it was doing less.
Today in Annapolis a joint legislative committee will be asking a representative of the racing commission just how deeply Vogel was digging into Rosecroft's resources.
There was nothing illegal about this -- it was, after all, his money -- but one racing insider observed, "We can see now that racing and real estate development make a dangerous marriage. In real estate, you need cash, and racing has a huge cash flow."
Vogel made mistakes in the expenditures he did make. He had paid a ridiculous $8 million price for the racing dates at Freestate, which was about to be clobbered by intertrack betting. He spent $2 million on the new racing strip at Rosecroft, and although it is regarded as one of the best in the sport, the transformation of a half-mile track into a five-eighths mile track should hardly have been his top priority.
He may have erred too when Rosecroft reinstated drivers who had been previously barred from competing there -- not exactly a move designed to reassure a betting public that always harbors doubts about the game's honesty.
Yet even among all this gloom, track president Jim Murphy could say, yesterday, "From the operational standpoint, Rosecroft is in very good shape. This has been an extremely successful year. We've exceeded our projection."
The balance sheet for 1990 probably looks pretty good. Shutting down Freestate eliminated a lot of overhead. Cost-cutting improved the bottom line too. And the introduction of simulcasting between Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs gave a boost to wagering. "It was a tremendous move," said Murphy. "It was one of the most successful things we've ever done."
Even so, total wagering in the state is down approximately 5 percent this year, and it may be headed far lower, because the benefits that Murphy cites may be double-edged swords.
The closing of Freestate already has narrowed the sport's fan base, and Rosecroft's cost- cutting at the track is not doing anything to attract new faces. Rosecroft depends on the same nucleus of regulars. With intertrack betting, they may get to bet more than 20 races a night, which is good for the handle in the short run, but experience elsewhere has shown that this abundance of races will eventually grind up their customers' bankrolls and knock them out of action. Such intertrack betting was once seen a limitless boon to the New Jersey tracks; now they're all hurting.
Under all these circumstances, it is questionable whether Vogel could have remedied Rosecroft's ills, though his plight has certainly magnified them. Yet even if he has hurt the sport, he deserves a measure of sympathy too, for he got into the game with the best of intentions until his other financial problems overwhelmed him.
With shrinking resources, he may have made the calculation that his real estate interests were more salvageable than Rosecroft is.