Homegrown horseman returns


February 09, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

Lenny Hale was 12 when he watched his first Preakness from the rooftop of a barn at Pimlico. He was a horse-crazy kid growing up in the non-horsey Overlea section of Baltimore, where his parents still have a family seafood business.

Since graduating from Overlea High School and attending classes at Towson State University and Essex Community College, he's worked his way to the top of the managerial heap in thoroughbred racing, with experience at some of the nation's great racetracks.

In recent years, as senior vice president of racing for the New York Racing Association, he organized numerous runnings of the Belmont Stakes -- the third leg of racing's Triple Crown -- and two runnings of the Breeders' Cup.

Late in 1992, however, at age 47, he returned to Baltimore for a new job -- vice president of racing for the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel race courses. Racing, in one form or another one of Maryland's oldest traditions, has been struggling in the past couple years. Mr. Hale sees a positive future, however.

QUESTION: You have been away from Maryland for quite some time. How is the state's racing industry perceived nationally?

ANSWER: Let me put it in this context. When I left Baltimore, it was considered a dreary, dingy city. It still has problems, but at least it's vibrant and alive. But now, around the country, people say, 'Oh, you're from Baltimore. They're doing so many great things there, like the Inner Harbor." That's changed the city's image.

Well, the same thing happened in racing. Frank DeFrancis [the late owner of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks in the 1980s] took over, stirred things up and created a renaissance in the industry.

But, in the last three years, that trend has been reversed. Drastic changes in the tax laws [the Tax Reform Act of 1986] took away many of the benefits of owning and breeding race horses.

The industry here, like in other areas nationwide, now feels the effects of that legislation. Fewer people own less horses overall. That means fewer betting opportunities and declines in the amount of money being bet.

Couple that with the terrible recession we've been through, and there has been stagnation in the state's industry.

Maryland does very well with the big days like the Preakness and the Maryland Million. But the everyday cards have to become something special, too. There is a tremendous future here, though.

Q.: Why do you say that?

A.: Pretty soon, the first off-track betting outlets will be opening up, as well as expansion into other forms of simulcasting. All the state's thoroughbred and harness tracks will be open almost daily from noon until midnight.

In addition to the live races, whole cards of races from other states will be televised and available for betting at the Maryland tracks, as well as the OTB parlors. We will be able to reach more people in more areas of the state.

But the main reason I came back is [Laurel and Pimlico owner] Joe DeFrancis' idea to expand into Virginia and create a new interstate circuit. On the national scene, it's probably the only exciting opportunity left.

Q: All this simulcasting and off-track betting -- aren't you afraid it will kill attendance at the tracks?

A.: In France, they have the Tierce, or off-track betting. No one goes to the races except the horsemen. Instead, the public goes to the OTB shops. That probably is what is going to happen in this country.

But that's the challenge of the sport. We still have to get people out to the track and cultivate the fans of the future.

Given a preference, people would still rather bet on live horses than ones they see on television. Steeplechasing in this country has had something of a revival because people realize it is a wonderful outdoor spectacle.

We have to create that same sort of feeling at the thoroughbred tracks.

Q.: The state is relying so heavily these days on gambling that it's become something of a moral issue. What's the difference between betting on horses and something like keno?

A.: Horse racing is something you can enjoy and have some control over. If you do your homework, you greatly increase your chances of winning. There's no way to enhance your chances by picking a random number.

Also, you have to make a conscious effort to go to the races. You don't just sit in a bar and play numbers, where the temptation could be greater to gamble away your paycheck.

Even if you lose at the races, you have the thrill of seeing your horse run. Where's the thrill of seeing a number flash?

Q.: Explain more about the Virginia project -- a state that doesn't have racing now.

A.: The plan is to forget state boundaries and create a circuit that will once again create incentives for people to own and breed horses in this area. In Colonial America, Maryland and Virginia were the cradles of racing, and they can be again.

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