Perilous times for racing

September 11, 1992

Maryland's horse-racing industry is taking a pounding in this recession. Horse-breeding farms are closing. Thoroughbred trainers are leaving the state, taking their horses with them. Attendance at the tracks and the all-important handle (the money bet on horses) is down 8 percent for the second year in a row. And the owners of Laurel and Pimlico are locked in a bitter legal feud.

Facing two years of losses totaling $1.7 million, Laurel-Pimlico majority owner Joe De Francis is trying to plug the dike till the recessionary seas around him subside. He says he will shut down Pimlico as a stabling and training site from November through mid-March, when it would re-open for live racing. Savings: $500,000.

But 40 trainers, representing over 240 horses, say they would move to another state if they can't stable their horses at Pimlico. With Mr. De Francis already struggling to fill his racing cards, such a loss could be devastating.

Pimlico-based horsemen staged a two-day boycott of Laurel races. Then they tried to work with Mr. De Francis on cutting costs. Other alternatives were discussed, to no avail. Now neither side seems willing to budge. Yet both stand to lose heavily if the Baltimore track shuts down in November.

Maryland racing is caught in a vicious cycle. When the handle and attendance drop, purses are cut. That discourages trainers from bringing in horses. That, in turn, reduces the quality of racing, leading to less interest among racing fans, which means even lower handles and even lower purses.

There are no easy solutions. Off-track betting, much-touted as a savior, might stave off the wolves temporarily, but progress has been slow. Promotional campaigns have failed to stir new public interest. And with the Manfuso brothers and Mr. De Francis engaged in a bitter court fight, the Laurel-Pimlico owners won't invest more capital to enhance the tracks' appeal.

Under Frank J. De Francis, racing enjoyed a renaissance here in the 1980s. It was called "the Maryland miracle," and rightly so. But since Mr. De Francis died three years ago, the recession has undermined many of his achievements, and his son has been feuding with the Manfusos over control of the tracks. A billion-dollar industry in Maryland finds itself on the edge of despair.

Everyone in the racing industry ought to be concerned. Creative ways must be explored to help horse-racing survive till economic times improve. Many more people must be persuaded that the "sport of kings" is every bit as exciting to watch and enjoy as a night at Camden Yards.

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