Maryland's horse racing industry hits hard times

February 10, 1992|By Ross Peddicord and Jon Morgan

There are 14 bridles hanging on the wall of trainer Greg Wilson's equipment room at Laurel Race Course. But Wilson only has four animals in his care -- three horses and a goat.

Elsewhere at the track, a veterinarian has lost so much business he has had to begin making "farm calls." A shortage of thoroughbreds has forced Laurel to cut a race a day from its program. And in Frederick County, a horseman who used to break -- or train for riding -- nearly 20 horses a year, is now driving a school bus part-time to make ends meet.

Maryland's 250-year-old horse industry is slogging through a nation-wide, equine depression. Breeders and owners are going out of business or cutting operations at alarming rates. Fewer fans are betting less money on fewer horses at Laurel and Pimlico. And supporting services, from veterinarians to feed suppliers, are hurting.

A precise estimate of the industry's impact in Maryland is difficult to come by, but most estimates suggest that $1 billion changes hands because of it every year.

A few years ago, state reports estimated nearly 20,000 people were employed in the thoroughbred business directly or indirectly, although this included part-timers and anyone who owned or invested in a horse. Direct employment is probably much less.

But racing has been a part of Maryland's culture for centuries, and its troubles strike a harsh chord across the state. The Maryland Jockey Club is the oldest racing organization in the United States. The nation's first organized thoroughbred race was held at Annapolis in 1745, and Baltimore's Pimlico is its second-oldest track.

Maryland horse racing underwent an unprecedented renaissance over the past decade, and was even dubbed "The Maryland Miracle" within the industry. The good times peaked in 1990, with record betting and attendance at the state's tracks. The thoroughbred crop that was born in 1987 and raced as 3-year-olds in 1990 represented the largest number of horses ever bred in the state.

But times have changed.

"We find we have to watch who we extend credit to, and even monitor the accounts of our good-paying clients," said Bob Vallance, partner in Yergey, Stewart and Vallance, the veterinary practice that takes care of the largest number of horses at Maryland tracks.

The business "just dried up" at the tracks at the end of last year, forcing his firm to make farm calls, he said.

David Butts, a Frederick County horseman, once broke as many as 12 to 18 yearlings, or 1-year-olds, each fall. He broke only half that number this year, and supplements his income by substitute teaching,driving a school bus and doing horse dentistry.

Mr. Wilson, the trainer, has equipment for 40 horses. But without investors willing to buy and race horses, he, like other trainers, is left with little business. A few years ago Mr. Wilson, 41, was at the height of his career, with 20 stakes winners to his credit.

Hal C. B. Clagett, a legendary Maryland horse breeder and past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, has cut way back. Last year, he sent 15 2-year-olds to his trainer at Bowie. This year it will be four.

Even King Leatherbury, the winningest trainer in the state, has felt the economic pinch. "So far, I haven't laid off anybody," Mr. Leatherbury said. "But I'm bringing in horses now that I wouldn't have brought in before, horses with a one-in-10 chance of getting to the races. I'm just trying to keep my stalls filled.

Slowdown at the track

When the late Frank De Francis and his partners, Bob and Tom Manfuso, purchased moribund Laurel and Pimlico in the mid-1980s, Mr. De Francis inspired the state legislature to give the tracks a hefty tax break, Sunday racing and intertrack wagering.

Mr. De Francis, and his high-profile associate, Lynda O'Dea, built glitzy "sports palaces" with handicapping computers and a casino-like atmosphere. Attendance and betting figures soared.

Between 1985 and 1990, annual attendance at Laurel and Pimlico increased 50 percent, four times the growth rate of 12 percent for all tracks in United States. The amount bet -- called the handle -- increased 65 percent at the two Maryland tracks, three times the national growth rate of 21 percent during the period.

No more. Last year, the handle was down 7 percent and attendance was off by more than 6 percent at the Maryland tracks. And because of heavy borrowing, the interest payments have eaten operating profits and left the tracks in the red.

Pimlico and Laurel are expected to show losses for 1991 on top of more than $1 million in red ink during the previous two years. In November, 40 employees were laid off, leaving the tracks and associated training center at Bowie with 875 employees.

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