Throughout the country, thoroughbred race tracks are seeking to counteract slumps in wagering, attendance and interest in their industry. The same quandary confronts track owners in Maryland, where the summer handle at Laurel was down 1.5 percent and the Pimlico spring meet handle slumped 8.4 percent.
Some critics claim there has been a deterioration in services and facilities that is turning off betting customers. Others say the concerns of horsemen aren't being addressed, leading to smaller fields and smaller purses.
No one knows how much of the problem at Pimlico and Laurel is recession-related. Major tracks in other parts of the country, though, are taking steps to counter long-term trends that threaten the horse-racing industry. While Maryland was once a leader in innovations, this is no longer the case. It is time for local track owners to take a cue from other operators elsewhere.
At Hollywood Park, the focus is on a "user friendly" environment that will draw new fans to the races. A one-ticket package provides you with admission, parking and a program that employs laymen's terms to handicap races. The result: a rise in attendance for the first time in five years.
Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago, meanwhile, is luring women to the races through plusher facilities, diaper-changing tables in each women's restroom and a big Mother's Day promotion. The result: 51 percent of Arlington's patrons are now women.
Belmont Park near New York City is trying to draw tourists from the Big Apple with special promotions. It wants to change the track's image through customer service training for workers. Calder Racecourse near Miami fills time between events with informative videos on racing history and personalities. It also offers free handicapping by neutral experts. Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., is catering to families with pony rides, picnic sites and expanded community involvement.
These moves are aimed at broadening the racing market. Horse racing is a billion-dollar industry for Maryland and while isolated events such as the Preakness or the recently concluded Maryland Million (which broke attendance and wagering records) are enormously popular, big changes are needed to draw more patrons the rest of the year.
Making Pimlico and Laurel a fun place for folks to spend their leisure time and money is the challenge confronting track president Joe De Francis. The answer lies in better marketing of this exciting spectator sport.