When the corporate owner of Laurel and Pimlico racetracks revealed its plan to cut Maryland's racing dates almost in half, skeptics might have wondered if it was a political ploy. Is the Magna Entertainment Corporation attempting to gain leverage in its efforts to obtain slot machines at the tracks? Or are the sport's problems really so dire as to warrant such drastic action?
It is hard to muster too much sympathy for the Canadian corporation and its chairman, Frank Stronach, whose management of tracks in Maryland and elsewhere has often been incomprehensibly inept. But in view of the deterioration of the racing product here, trimming the schedule is the best option Magna has. After operating 200 days in 2005, Laurel and Pimlico would race on only 112 dates in future years. The Maryland racing season would run from the start of November through the third Saturday in May, the traditional date of the Preakness. The rationale for the change is to bolster purses.
After the failure of bills that would have legalized slots at the state's tracks, purse money at Laurel and Pimlico is paltry compared to their neighbors. On yesterday's opening-day card at Laurel, a bottom-level allowance race offered a pot of $28,000. A race with comparable conditions at slot-rich Delaware Park yesterday carried a purse of $41,000. As better horses go where the money is, the quality of Maryland's once-proud thoroughbred sport has been sinking fast. It is difficult to regard Laurel and Pimlico as major-league tracks any more. Slots would have been the panacea for their problems. But there is a way for tracks to offer good racing without slots: run an abbreviated schedule of live racing, offer simulcasts year-round, and stockpile the revenue from those simulcasts to bolster purses.
The approach is epitomized by Keeneland, which operates only 32 days per year and is able to offer the richest purses in American racing. Under the plan for its new racing schedule, Laurel President Joe De Francis said, "Our purses would go from $175,000 a day to $300,000 a day." De Francis and other track executives spent the day explaining the plan to political leaders and, he said, "The reaction has been one of regret but understanding. People realize we're in a difficult situation that calls for dramatic action."
But few people will be able to understand Magna's inept planning. Stronach wants his tracks to have high-quality racing surfaces, and he pushed for a project to rebuild and enlarge the Laurel turf course. The 142-foot wide course would allow the track to card many turf races and attract large fields. After the project was beset by delays and cost overruns, the final price tag was more than $20 million. The turf course's usefulness will be largely negated by Magna's latest big idea. Under the proposed new racing schedule, Laurel will operate only from November through mid-April, a schedule that includes all of the winter months in which the weather doesn't permit grass racing. What a waste!
In addition to announcing its plan to reduce, by nearly half, the number of racing days in the state, Magna said yesterday it would sell the company's 178-acre training facility in Bowie for a housing development.
The proposed reduction of the live racing schedule is almost certain to meet full-scale opposition from Maryland's horsemen; they have always fought suggested cutbacks in the past. But the horsemen will only hurt themselves if they try to cling to the status quo. They will still be receiving the same number of dollars, spread over a shorter period, if they accept the Magna plan, and they may benefit from a revival of the sport.
But the horsemen who are based here year-round will have their lives significantly disrupted if Magna goes through with its plan to shut the stable areas when live racing ends. Trainers might not be able to obtain stall space at other tracks in the region, because there is already intense demand for stabling accommodations at Delaware Park and Charles Town. Instead of fighting the new racing schedule, horsemen should fight to keep the stable area at Laurel open year-round, so that they can use Maryland as a base for shipping to other tracks in the area.
Maryland's horseplayers have reason to fret about the shortened racing schedule, too. It is true that most bettors are oblivious to the presence of live thoroughbreds, since most of them watch all the action on television monitors. But when Laurel operates strictly as a simulcast center, without live racing, the place is dispiriting, and customers are treated as third-class citizens instead of second-class citizens.
If Laurel is going to operate as a simulcast theater most of the year, it should offer players the amenities that other tracks give them -- such as desks with personal TV monitors and betting terminals. Maybe it could even offer decent food at the concession stands. A revamped racing schedule isn't going to help Maryland's tracks prosper if it further alienates its customers and its horsemen.