The "Racing Plan for the 21st Century" that the Maryland Jockey Club unveiled last week is a document of more than 100 pages, filled with snazzy color drawings that show how beautiful Laurel and Pimlico will look in the future. It outlines strategies to bring about "a fundamental change in the way . . . Maryland thoroughbred racing serves its customers."
The plan also has a more immediate goal. It is being sent to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and the General Assembly, who must approve it before allowing a $10 million subsidy to purses at the state's tracks. The politicians probably will look at all of those snazzy color drawings and give the report a passing grade. But as a fan, I give it an F after reading the report and pondering its contents. It resembles a hastily written term paper by a poorly prepared student who hopes that some trite generalizations can fool the teacher into thinking he has done some real work.
When I first read and wrote about the plan, I was appalled because it expects the tracks' customers to pay for a substantial part of its cost, through a 1.5 percent increase in the "takeout" from wagers on Maryland races. This would have been objectionable and unwarranted if Joe De Francis, the president of Laurel and Pimlico, were going to build the Taj Mahal of racing. But he has not even focused on his customers' basic needs.
The problem with Laurel and Pimlico is not only that they are old and run-down, but that their design is ill-suited to the nature of modern racing. Like most other tracks, they were built to accommodate fans sitting in a grandstand and watching horses running around a dirt oval. In the age of simulcasting, of course, the nature of the game has changed. Maryland horseplayers bet much more money on out-of-state races than on live events. As they follow the action on television monitors, many don't see a living, breathing thoroughbred during the course of an afternoon.
Other tracks have built simulcast theaters designed specifically for their customers' needs. Patrons at Delaware Park sit in swivel chairs at a desk with their own television monitor and look at a wall of giant TV screens.
But there is not such a first-class simulcast area anywhere in Laurel or Pimlico. The once-glitzy Sports Palaces at each track were designed for other purposes, and don't function well for simulcasting; Laurel's has become depressingly shabby, anyway. Fans in the grandstand sit in ill-lit areas, in uncomfortable chairs, straining to follow the action on small TV screens. From the standpoint of almost every customer, improving the presentation of simulcasts is priority number one.
Yet in the many pages of the report detailing the proposed improvements for Laurel and Pimlico, the word "simulcasting" does not appear. Not even once.
The main improvement for Pimlico is a new outdoor paddock, overlooked by terraces where fans can watch the horses. De Francis said Pimlico badly needs aesthetic improvements to make it a proper home for the Preakness and declared, "The paddock is an important part of showcasing racing." In view of the Preakness's importance to Maryland, perhaps it is reasonable to emphasize appearance over practicality at Pimlico.
But the main activity at the Laurel plant is simulcast betting. Yet most of the money being spent at Laurel is earmarked for other purposes -- for "site work" (paving the parking lot, reconfiguring storm drains, etc.), for construction of barns on the backstretch. In the plan there is $1 million allotted for clubhouse dining rooms, and there is a snazzy color drawing of a "Grandstand Players Pavillion [sic]" where fans sit at tables overlooking the track -- a design from racing's bygone days.
The budget includes $1 million over the next five years for interior grandstand rehabilitation, some of which will go into simulcasting areas. Vice President Marty Azola said he also will use money from his annual "unallocated capital budget" for this purpose. But the money is woefully inadequate, and it won't give Maryland fans anything as good as Delaware Park, let alone the simulcasting palaces of Las Vegas. The stingy budget is a sharp contrast with the $2 million that the late Frank J. De Francis spent in 1986 to build the Laurel Sports Palace, wowing every Maryland racing fan with his creation.
Frank De Francis always was attuned to what the customers wanted; his successors are not. Maryland bettors won't be shocked that they are largely ignored in the son's grand plans for the future. But if they read his plan, they surely would be galled by all the lip service paid to customer service. The report says the tracks will hire a "blue chip senior executive" to oversee customer service. It will broaden the fan base with "specially trained customer service personnel that can teach people about the sport of horse racing." It will hire an expert outside consultant to study how "our past customer service efforts have fallen short."
These are the same hollow sentiments that Maryland racing executives have been spouting for a decade. The tracks may be able to fool the state legislature into believing they are launching a new era in Maryland racing, but they're not going to fool their own customers. If the principal need of the customers -- good facilities for watching simulcasts -- was just an afterthought in a five-year, $60 million plan, Maryland's tracks are going to be conducting business as usual.