Inter-track is a good bet for harness and players But Pimlico's De Francis isn't happy with the return

May 28, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

To Charles Smith, a truck driver who lives in northwest RTC Baltimore, having harness races telecast at night into Pimlico Race Course, means he is going to the track more frequently.

"I only live five minutes away," Smith said Tuesday night as he watched the Standardbred races from The Meadowlands on closed circuit TV from the second floor of Pimlico's clubhouse.

"I work during the day so it's a lot more convenient for me to go to the races at night. Now, it's probably too convenient."

Like a lot of horseplayers, who used to frequent harness races at the defunct Freestate Raceway near Laurel, having the standardbred races simulcast at Pimlico and Laurel has breathed life into their race-going habits.

It has also breathed life into the state's moribund harness industry.

"Pimlico is a surprising gem," said Ted Snell, president of Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways, the state's two harness tracks.

"There's no question we needed to get back into the Baltimore market. You can look at our business statistics and see we're up. Well, we wouldn't show that increase if we weren't back in Baltimore. It's as cut and dried as that."

During the 30 nights since inter-track simulcasting was started on April 23, an average of $84,536 has been bet on 22 nights at Pimlico when live racing was conducted at Rosecroft. Tuesdays are not included in the figure because only simulcasts from The Meadowlands are shown that night.

At Laurel, after 24 nights (Pimlico did not carry harness simulcasts on Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness days), the nightly average is $88,762. On Tuesdays, the two tracks together average about $125,000 strictly on The Meadowlands simulcasts.

"When we started out, Pimlico was a little stronger than Laurel," Snell said. "Now, it seems to be shifting the other way. We're seeing some cannibalization of Rosecroft from the people south of Laurel who are going to Laurel at night instead of Rosecroft [near Washington in Prince George's County]. But I'd say we've gained over $100,000 [in nightly handle] from Baltimore. Basically, our business is 50-50 between the two outlets [Pimlico and Laurel]."

Maintaining that new spot in the Baltimore marketplace is key to the harness tracks' position as they negotiate with thoroughbred track operator, Joe De Francis, to keep the inter-track experiment alive.

Talks were supposed to take place today, but have been delayed until Tuesday at De Francis' request. He said he needs more time to analyze his figures. He maintains that the trade-off has not been so sweet for the flat tracks.

While Rosecroft business at Pimlico and Laurel is averaging about $173,000 a night, De Francis said that showing the thoroughbreds in the afternoon at Rosecroft has been a break-even position for him and has hurt daytime business at Laurel.

He said he wants to end the experiment, unless he can gain concessions from the harness tracks such as running televised cards from Hollywood Park, which is on the West Coast and begins three hours later, in their entirety and not stopping them at 7:15 p.m.

"This is going to be our last meeting [with the harness tracks]," De Francis said.

"Either we make a deal, or we don't." If no deal is struck, the inter-track program could be shut down next week, he said.

Snell said he is optimistic the arrangement will continue.

"Soon, you're going to see the thoroughbred races also going into Delmarva Downs [near Ocean City] in the afternoon," Snell said.

"You're going to see races like the Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug [Standardbred classics] telecast into Pimlico and Laurel, races many Maryland horseplayers have never seen. There are going to be big days for us. Inter-tracking has meant about $14,000 to $15,000 extra a day in purses for our horsemen. It means too much to them to have us stop it."

And it will mean that thoroughbred players like Leo Johnson, a meat cutter from Essex, can continue almost daylong sprees at Pimlico betting thoroughbreds and harness horses.

On Tuesday, he said he had bet all nine live races at Pimlico, three or four simulcast races from Churchill Downs and five or six harness races that night. By 10:30 p.m., he was still at the track after arriving about noon.

"I've never even been to Rosecroft," Johnson said. "This is only my second time betting on the trotters. It's something different, although I still prefer thoroughbreds.

"One of these days I might figure out what I'm doing, and make some money at it," he said.

Added a government accountant who almost nightly attends the Pimlico simulcasts, but who didn't want to give his name: "There are basically two groups of players here. They are fans that used to go to Freestate [which closed in 1988] and are still around. Then there are people who just like to bet. They could be running rabbits here, and they'd still be here to bet on them."

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