LAUREL -- The Maryland Racing Commission yesterday held a forum to determine the state of the state's racing industry and learned some sobering facts.
But not all the input was bad during the commission's regular monthly meeting at Laurel Race Course.
Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico, told the commission that the early trials with commingling (simulcasting full Maryland cards to New Jersey and Delaware tracks) "have far exceeded our expectations and we're hoping we can generate other opportunities. We're actively selling as many markets as we can."
And J.W.Y. Martin Jr., president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association, said that a steady downturn in foals born in the state "is probably not going to get any worse."
But those pronouncements were tempered by a general picture that more tough times lie ahead before Maryland racing can round the far turn.
De Francis said the real impact of the state's horse shortage, which leads to smaller fields and less attractive betting races, will not be felt until the next four to five years.
"This is far and away the most important development facing the BTC industry," he said. "It is a national problem. There will be a situation where tracks are going out of business."
The number of owners has also declined, the result of recessionary times and federal tax law changes in 1986, which made it economically less appealing to own horses.
Maryland has actually gained in the percentage of foals born in the Mid-Atlantic arena (43 percent this year, up from 37 1/2 percent in 1986), but the total number has dropped from 2,076 in 1987 to 1,560 last year, underscoring the national nature of the problem.
"It used to be that a person would own four or five horses, now four or five people own one," Martin said. "That's why it is important that the Maryland Breeders' Fund grow. That gives owners reason to be optimistic."
To add revenues, the tracks are stressing regionalization with commingling and, in the near future, off-track betting, which has been approved by the state legislature.
"In the future, there are going to be exporters and importers," De Francis said of individual states. "It is very important that we be an exporter. That makes it absolutely vital that we maintain our quality of racing."
A "marginal reduction" in the amount of live racing has been necessary because of the horse shortage, but De Francis said that because of fewer costs and higher handles, live races are far preferable to simulcasts. He asked for cooperation from the horsemen and the unions that work at the track to maximize revenues.
De Francis has sent a communique to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association describing a proposal for simulcasting races between Laurel and Rosecroft Raceway.
"We just received it and haven't had time to study it in depth," said Alan Foreman, attorney for the MTHA.
"The concept is attractive to everyone. The problem is who's going to pay the expenses? But I'm convinced we will find a solution to that problem."