BALTIMORE, MD -- There are 146 racing dates in Maryland this year. Only one of them matters.
On Saturday, the 136th running of the Preakness Stakes takes place at Pimlico Race Course. And on Preakness Day, Pimlico comes alive.
For one week, however, freshly planted flowers and bold sponsorship logos on corporate tents will juxtapose sharply against the peeling paint, leaky ceilings and rusted metal.
This old oval off Northern Parkway has long been regarded as the red-headed stepchild among the hosts of marquee racing events. It's a rundown facility where officials consider themselves lucky to find 3,000 attendees rattling around in the worn out grandstand on an average day, where patrons lock their car doors to pass through dilapidated neighborhoods around the track as evening falls.
For one week, however, freshly planted flowers and bold sponsorship logos on corporate tents will juxtapose sharply against the peeling paint, leaky ceilings and rusted metal. Crowds, often 100,000 or more, will come pouring through the turnstiles. The nation's best 3-year-olds will run here. One, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, could take this race to get a shot at the legendary Triple Crown.
That three-race series hasn't been swept since 1978 when it was won by Affirmed, but every time they run the Preakness, there is hope that this could be the year. On Preakness Day, the track packs in enough race-goers and infield revelers in one fell swoop to skew the average attendance and bump up the betting handle for the entire year. In a seasonal burst of glory, the Maryland Jockey Club pulls out all the stops, presenting a weekend of pomp and circumstance.
"Obviously the Preakness is the premier event not only in the state but across the Mid-Atlantic region, and I'd say it's one of the top five or six races in the country," said Tom Chuckas, the Maryland Jockey Club's president and COO. "All of Maryland horse racing takes its cue from the Preakness. It pretty much sets the tone for the year both from a racing perspective and a financial perspective. As the Preakness goes, so goes the year."
It's not all smoke and mirrors, this one weekend of big-league racing, because members of the Maryland Jockey Club (which runs Pimlico and Laurel Park) have readily admitted to their problems. There is no attempt to pretend that racing here is anywhere near this level any other time of the year, no pretense that the state's horsemen and racetracks are doing anything but hanging on by a thread.
Were it not for this one legendary event, that thread would have been severed long ago.
* * *
It is nothing new to write about the demise of Maryland racing. In fact, it has become a part of Preakness tradition in the past 10 years or so -- to tell of how the sport here has been all but demolished by the arrival of the state lottery in the late 1970s, the overgrowth of casinos and approval of slot machines in neighboring states in the '80s and '90s, and the national waning popularity of the game going into this generation.
The Maryland Jockey Club attempted to get slot machines -- viewed by many as vital sources of additional income for tracks across the nation -- for many years, but never came out on top in the bidding process. Without additional income from dividends from the slot machines, the tracks have fallen into financial disarray.
We can create a business plan that is self-sufficient, but that would require 40, 50 or 60 days of racing.
”-- MJC president Tom Chuckas
Last year, track operators here wanted to make a change from 146 racing days to 47, focusing their efforts on a boutique meet at Pimlico. Such a stark adjustment would be a severe blow to 28,000 full-time jobs, and faced with shorter meets and less opportunities to run their horses, many small-time owners, trainers and breeders could be forced out of business. A reduction in dates would also mean a harsh drop in about $1.6 billion of annual revenue to the state economy, a fact not lost on members of the legislature.
So in December, the state and members of the racing industry inked a deal, good through 2013, that allowed the Maryland Jockey Club to reallocate a percentage of video lottery terminal revenue originally restricted for capital improvements -- up to $6 million per year -- as long as they kept the full racing schedule and came up with a business plan to project how they will sustain the industry once the deal runs out. Those funds will be used instead to pay employees and meet other operational costs, a move Gov. Martin O'Malley specifically made to "save the Preakness" but which really helps the tracks year-round.
In late 2012, when a permanent casino facility at Arundel Mills Mall opens approximately 10 miles from Laurel, racing officials expect subsidies from there and the two other casinos in Maryland to total about $50 million per year. Seventy-five percent of that total would go to purses, and 25 percent would go to track operators. But many worry the relief is like a bandage on a gushing wound.
"We can create a business plan that is self-sufficient, but that would require 40, 50, or 60 days of racing," Chuckas said.
If there were fewer racing dates, Chuckas explained, the tracks could focus on quality over quantity. Purses would be bigger, attracting fuller fields of better horses. With better horses would come re-interested fans and horseplayers, like those at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington or at California's Del Mar.
"I think the overall message is pretty clear," he said. "What we've done for the last five or 10 years isn't working, so for the long-term survival of racing we'd better come up with something new. If that's a shorter meet or a different circuit, we have to take a hard look at it. "
H. Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer, would like to see just that. He worked at Pimlico as an assistant in his early days, and he's seen the decline of purses and attendance in the state. Now he starts most of his runners at tracks like Delaware Park and Saratoga, where the purses are bigger and the racing seasons are shorter. In the mid-Atlantic region, where as many as six tracks run races at the same time, there simply aren't enough horses to make full fields.
"There's just too much racing here; it's a no-brainer," Motion said. "I think everybody needs to realize things are different, you know. Times have changed, and to help our business, we need to cut back. That's the only way."
Horsemen like Eddie Gaudet, who has been on the Maryland circuit since 1944 (he conditions Preakness starter Concealed Identity), find the situation depressingly grim.
"We've never had the opportunity to have the slot machines here, and we're losing all the money that belongs in Maryland," he remarked. "They're going to Charles Town and Delaware Park and all our money is leaving the state. You go around the countryside here and see all of these people who have beautiful farms and work like hell to breed and race their runners, and they can't make a living because they're not even running for a decent purse."
* * *
This Saturday, there will be high-class festivity in the clubhouse and slightly-more-intoxicated festivity in the infield (which features music by performers such as Train and Bruno Mars, bikini contests, a volleyball tournament, and kegs upon kegs of beer). In a race with an estimated post time of 6:20 p.m. ET, 14 runners -- including nine "new shooters," fresh horses that didn't start in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago -- will take to the track for the 1 3/16-mile contest that is keeping the sport alive here.
And this is the thing about the Preakness: the event and the overall industry in Maryland are perfect illustrations of racing's condition nationwide. This phenomenal product, one big day out of all the rest, is excellent and worth preserving. Marquee events are what the sport does best. Quality over quantity should be the goal.
At Pimlico, until that shift in focus happens, those in Maryland get to feel good about their sport on one day -- and one day only.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.