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Preakness pumps a little life into state's withering industry

5/16/2009

The elevator at Pimlico has a bounce. Not a reassuring bounce. Not a full-of-happy-racegoers bounce. No, this is a fingers-crossed-we-don't-get-stuck bounce, a thank-god-we-made-it-to-the-press-box bounce. Says the lady in the racing office, "You might have to push the button a few times to get it to work." The button, like most things around here, is worn out.

So are the everyday racegoers for the most part; wizened old regulars of the turf, gray- or white-haired spectators of a sport no longer a sport, now a business on the brink of ruin. Shuffling around the cavernous grandstand, squinting at their Racing Forms with watery eyes, hobbling out onto the apron with unsteady steps, they come from retirement facilities and apartments and homes they have owned in Baltimore for 50 years or more. They wager with experience, then quietly go home. Eventually, one by one, they'll grow too old and just stop coming.

Used to be, maybe 45 years ago, you could show up at this racetrack on a nice spring day, watch the runners, buy a hot dog, have a decent time with a bunch of decent people -- a crowd of 20,000 or more. But no one goes to Pimlico any more, at least not in the numbers this track used to see. Not the young and energetic crowds to bring enthusiasm and vibe to a place, not the trendy masses to make racing the "in" thing. It just isn't cool, isn't hip to go to Pimlico. Except on Preakness day.

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The Preakness saves Pimlico. It always has. The Preakness also impacts Maryland. In the 48 hours that will pass between today and tomorrow, an economic impact of more than $24 million will be created for the region around the racetrack. Last year, bets placed on Preakness day alone accounted for more than 11 percent of the Maryland Jockey Club's annual wagering at the state's two tracks (Pimlico and the neighboring Laurel) combined. And more than 320 jobs and $1.4 million in taxes will be generated this weekend, as the one signature race makes the whole season worthwhile. Because listen, don't kid yourself, 99 percent of the 112,222 people who attended last year's Preakness wouldn't be caught dead here on an average Saturday. That's just the way it is.

You drive to the racetrack past the blackened hulks of dilapidated houses; boarded-up windows and iron-barred doors. The neighborhood that surrounds the track, Lower Park Heights, is ranked by the Baltimore Police Department as one of the highest per capita crime areas of the city, so dangerous that the department has taken to mounting video cameras on the tops of corner streetlights in an attempt to quell drug trafficking and violence there. At 6:30 p.m., when most kids should be inside eating dinner with their families, the young children here -- aged 5, 6, 7 -- walk the streets alone. They turn to look as the cars drive by and meet your eyes with blank, hopeless stares, and you feel like you're in a Third World country somewhere, not 15 minutes away from communities where the state's wealthiest citizens live in well-heeled opulence. It's intimidating. And disturbing. As one Baltimore resident put it, "You just don't want to look."

But even if you take away the dilapidated neighborhood and the literally dying fan base and the crumbling facilities that are difficult to heat, difficult to cool, and difficult to maintain, racing at Pimlico -- and in the entire state -- still has a problem. A huge, multi-faceted problem.

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This, in a nutshell (if you can put the whole thing in a nutshell) is it: The racetrack owner is bankrupt and the facility is going to be sold. Before there was that issue, purse levels were falling because Maryland politicians couldn't work out their differences on legalizing slot machines. Good horses run for more money, so the quality of daily racing here degraded as the horsemen shifted their stables to greener pastures. The fields shrunk, ever smaller.

With limited revenue, Maryland's incentive funds for raising and racing horses never grew to the magnitude of those in nearby states like Delaware and West Virginia, which were bolstered by the arrival of slots. So the local horse farms began to sell out, giving way to suburban developments. Now the future is uncertainly bleak, the only certainty a glaring picture of despair. They're holding on here by a thread.

Slots were supposed to be the savior. And last year, after a bill legalizing slots at Maryland tracks was shot down three times in the House of Delegates, Maryland voters finally passed a constitutional amendment to allow the machines in the state. But six months have passed, and no slots bids have been approved, due in part to a steep 67 percent tax rate required on the proceeds. Now it might be too late; the biggest racetrack operator in North America, Magna Entertainment Corp., which purchased the Maryland Jockey Club and two tracks in 2002, missed the deadline in February to pay $28.5 million in bidding fees for the rights to install slots at Laurel -- and one month later, citing losses of more than $600 million in seven years, went bankrupt. Now Magna will likely have to dissolve its assets, including, of course, Pimlico, home to the Preakness.

The Preakness, that storied second leg of the industry's premier attraction, the Triple Crown series, has been run at Pimlico for more than 100 years, and legislators are determined to keep it here. In early April they passed an emergency measure that gives them the right of eminent domain to purchase the track -- and the race itself, part of Maryland's heritage and tradition. But the state is hardly in a position to shell out millions of dollars for a dilapidated oval, so politicians will likely just oversee the purchase process and ensure that the track's new owner does not intend to raze the grounds and create a shopping center, as is slated to happen to Hollywood Park in California.

This is no new phenomenon. The racing industry in Maryland has been struggling for years, at least since the late 1970s, a downslide forced by the arrival of the state lottery, the development of casinos and approval of slots in neighboring states, and the waning popularity of horse racing as a spectator sport in general. One by one, four of Maryland's six racetracks shut their doors. When the De Francis family bought the two remaining tracks, Laurel and Pimlico, in the mid-80s, declining revenue was already taking its toll on the industry. By 1995, when Delaware became the first mid-Atlantic state to host slot machines, with West Virginia following in 1997, horsemen gravitated toward the higher purses, and thoroughbred farms across the region were hard-pressed to maintain their breeding operations. With incentives for breeding in the state now at a minimum, incentives for racing here are vanishing as well.

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The action at Pimlico is led by the horsemen: breeders, owners, trainers. They provide the product: sleek, smooth runners that prance out onto the track and run their hearts out, race after race after race. This is their livelihood, and the industry exists because of them, and they place their futures and dreams and affections on these horses and hope to see them fly.

The majority of the track's racing fans might not be all ages, but its horsemen are. Gnarled and experienced, with passion tempered by realism; young and determined, the years yet to school them. Racing here is what they know, and what they'd like to continue doing. But one by one, their businesses are failing and their decisions are made for them: to survive, go elsewhere. They wait for the state to keep their livelihood solvent; those decisions are always delayed. They wait for track managers to market and improve the sport they love; it takes money to make money. It's a vicious cycle that needs to end. How, no one knows.

In the days leading up to and following the 134th running of the Preakness Stakes, these issues form a complete dichotomy. There is the vast affluence that overwhelms Pimlico -- the throngs of festive racegoers, and the tradition and pageantry as horse racing puts its best foot forward, with the industry's greatest 3-year-olds chasing a purse worth $1 million and the most valuable trophy in American sports. Then there's the lower level, when racing returns here three days later with a maiden claiming event valued at $8,000.

It is easy to get caught up in the glamour of the moment, and in the adrenaline, and in the story lines of the always-intriguing Triple Crown trail. To view the Preakness telecast from afar, or to come to the track for a single time this season, nothing seems amiss. But the sad truth remains.

On any other afternoon, in this sprawling monstrosity made to house 100,000 people, you can sit in the middle of the grandstand seats and look far, far, away -- to the pane-glass wall that makes up the left side and to the clubhouse doors on the right -- without seeing a single racegoer. And you can spend the entire day that way, completely and utterly alone, in a sea of nothingness, where the yellow seats are chipped, cracked, and fading. Like the face of Maryland racing itself.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union, and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.