OTB supporters are off track if they think it's answer to racing's problems

JOHN STEADMAN zDB

February 21, 1992|By JOHN STEADMAN

Asking for Off-Track Betting, a system where you pay your way to enter what looks like a grandiose bookmaking establishment, is the latest get-well prescription for Maryland's ailing horse racing industry. There's a decline in the number of horses bred and the farms where they are stabled and trained. But, more importantly, general interest has taken a beating.

The General Assembly is once again being asked to resuscitate the patient. OTB is supposed to be the answer. For now maybe. But it needs to be diligently examined, as it was once before, to determine the long-range result of what happens to the sport if a drastic alteration is made in the way racing is presented.

Race horses could become an endangered species. And the sport, instead of gaining stature, could take another pounding. OTB is a quick-fix. No doubt about it. It will be effective. But for how long? If they start and it doesn't work, do they back away and rub it out?

Racing operators, and in Maryland that primarily means Joe De Francis, general manager at Pimlico and Laurel, plus the harness tracks, are not going to get it both ways. They will not draw spectators to their establishments at the prevailing numbers and, simultaneously, find the newly opened OTB outlets packed to the rafters.

With only so many racing fans to go around, a hefty percentage, possibly a third or more, may elect to enjoy the comforts of OTB. Meanwhile, back at the track, the crowds will be less, the handle appreciably lower and related services -- including car parkers, program printers and sellers, concession stand help, and waitresses, waiters and bartenders in the clubhouse -- will be standing around counting the flowers on the wall.

In the beginning, OTB will make a strong impression, but it may not be lasting. It's a question that could create a woeful backlash and, in time, compound racing's problems.

An OTB outlet in Hagerstown, Salisbury and Elkton, for the sake of presenting a hypothesis, would serve the potential patronage in those areas of the state. Convenience and comfort draw attention, plus the novelty of going there to observe the operation. The intention is that bettors, unable to make the trip to Pimlico and Laurel, would call instead on their friendly betting shop, otherwise known as legalized OTB.

So instead of visiting the track, the track would be coming to them. The tired old "bring the mountain to the people" syndrome. How many dollars would come through the windows? Enough to be successful, not for a day, a week even a full meet, but to sustain itself for perpetuity?

Charles M. Eckman, who has forgotten more about racing than some track officials know, since he has been a player for 50 years and has made it a habit to pay attention, predicts OTB is a foregone conclusion.

"It's going to happen," he says. "But I don't know if there's enough interest to carry it through the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, yes, but believe me, the men and women going to racetracks are becoming far more selective than ever before."

What would the result be if OTB is offered in Baltimore, where office and factory workers might stop by in the afternoon to wager on thoroughbreds or in the evening in quest of the trotters?

"That would be entirely self-defeating," he answered. "You can put betting parlors in Baltimore if you want, but that would only prove racing leaders are totally out of their minds. The Baltimore fans would forget about going to the track. That could lead to disaster."

It seems Maryland racing is putting the focus in the wrong place. It ought to be trying to make a "day at the races" more enjoyable, an experience worth savoring and encouraging the players to come back again and again. That's where the emphasis should be, endeavoring to build for the long haul and not implementing some idea off a "medicine wagon."

Racing should be severely circumspect. It needs to ask itself where it's going wrong in its live presentation at the track and try to generate new appeal. OTB may bring about an infusion of fresh money outside the tracks but, at the same time, will it be substantial enough to offset attendance and betting setbacks inside Pimlico and Laurel?

They can't have it two ways. OTB is not the panacea that's pretended.

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