Maryland's one day of racing
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.
“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."
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
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