Television ratings for the Preakness Stakes may have been down this year, but the betting handle on Maryland's signature racing day grew to more than $91 million, helping the Maryland Jockey Club realize a 7 percent rise in wagering for its marquee Pimlico spring meet.
The meet, which ran from April 18 through Sunday, boasted increases in handle -- the amount bet -- on live racing, simulcast races imported from out of state as well as wagers placed on Pimlico racing from outside of Maryland.
"It was a solid spring meeting," said Chief Operating Officer Lou Raffetto, "and hopefully we'll find our niche with this new Laurel grass course."
Despite unrelenting pressure from nearby racing states that offer slot machines at their tracks, and the inability of the horse racing lobby to sway the state legislature to enact its own gaming laws, Raffetto spoke with guarded optimism at Tuesday's meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission.
The installation of sod for the massive new turf course at Laurel Park will be complete Thursday, Raffetto said. The 142-foot wide course -- nearly double the width of the previous grass course -- is scheduled to be ready for racing when Laurel reopens Sept. 8.
The turf course is expected to rival the outstanding grass surface at Colonial Downs, the New Kent County, Va., track that will begin an eight-week run Friday.
Jeff Jacobs, president of Colonial Downs, this spring unveiled an ambitious $5 million Grand Slam of Grass, a four-race series of rich turf races for 3-year-olds culminating at the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park.
The series will begin June 25 with the $500,000 Colonial Cup and is followed by the Grade III $750,000 Virginia Derby on July 16 before shifting to Arlington Park in Chicago.
When the Colonial Downs meet concludes, racing will return for a brief run at Pimlico -- Aug. 12-26 -- before the state fair meet at Timonium and the reopening of Laurel.
Maryland bettors showed a renewed appetite for racing this spring, wagering $92.5 million, up from $78.2 million during a comparable period in 2004. While the handle on live and imported races increased 18.3 percent, wagering on live races exported via simulcast to sites out of state rose a more modest 1.1 percent to $150.8 million.
Total wagering reached $243.4 million, up from $227.4 million the prior year.
While the Colonial Downs meet may look like down time for Maryland racing, it is a critical period in which the tracks fill their purse accounts through simulcasting earnings while live racing is idle.
"Hopefully, we will accrue $4 million during the eight weeks of Colonial that can go toward purse accounts for the rest of the year," Raffetto said.
Racing Notes: Jockey Steve Hamilton won the Pimlico spring riding title for the second straight year with 50 victories, five ahead of runner-up Luis Garcia.
Trainer Dale Capuano captured his 11th straight meet title, dating from 2000, with 15 winners . . . Jim Gagliano, the executive vice president of Maryland racing who resigned May 25 after 11 months on the job, has been named executive vice president and chief administrative officer for the Jockey Club.