As Pimlico Race Course prepares for its annual day in the national limelight, fans and track supporters are growing increasingly concerned about its long-term future.
No one is suggesting the track will close any time soon. But its race days were cut again this year, and track owners are considering shutting some barns in favor of vanning horses in from Laurel Race Course.
The owners of Pimlico, the second-oldest track in the nation, have steadily shifted race days to the more profitable Laurel, which they also own. Laurel is near Washington and draws fans from both cities.
"It's obvious to everyone who's involved in Maryland racing that the emphasis is put on Laurel and that is a business decision," said Chick Lang, who managed Pimlico in the 1960s, '70s and part of the '80s when the two tracks had separate owners.
The track is scheduled to run 91 days this year -- the fewest race dates since 1984, when there was a competing track at Bowie. This year's schedule is down more than a third from 149 days in 1986, the year the owners of Laurel bought Pimlico. Laurel has gone from 137 days in 1986 to a scheduled 167 this year, up nearly 25 percent.
"My father said as long as he is alive Pimlico will still be there. I reiterate that: As long as I'm alive, Pimlico will still be there. Pimlico is an institution, and I can't imagine ever shutting it down," said Joe De Francis, president and majority owner of Laurel and Pimlico. His late father, Frank, previously owned the tracks.
On most days Laurel is more profitable, but Pimlico is the home of the Preakness Stakes, the richest day in Maryland racing, he said. With the Preakness included, Pimlico attracted an average of 11,314 fans and $1.6 million in betting per race day last year, compared with Laurel's average of 9,639 fans and $1.5 million in betting.
Nonetheless, De Francis said he thinks the tracks have achieved an equilibrium of race dates and he doesn't expect much more erosion from Pimlico. Each track is authorized by the Maryland Racing Commission to have up to 148 race dates this year.
Pimlico's season still is longer than it was when Bowie was open, De Francis said. In 1984, Pimlico ran 75 days, compared with 76 at the then-competing Laurel. Pimlico reached its peak in 1986.
Maximizing the profits of the two tracks is necessary to keep them both solvent, De Francis said. And the racing industry in Maryland depends on the fiscal soundness of the two tracks, he said.
"All of Maryland racing is better off," he said.
De Francis said he has made no decision on tearing down some of the dilapidated barns at Pimlico. If the barns are razed, the displaced horses would be vanned back and forth from Laurel, he said.
But, he added, "I can't conceive of a time we shut down Pimlico or drastically scale it back."
John H. Mosner Jr., chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said the commission would not look fondly at a drastic reduction in Pimlico race dates. But he supports the effort of the track owners to make the business profitable.
"To me there will always be a Preakness, and there will always be a Pimlico. But when you're running a business you have to look at the bottom line," Mosner said.