Virginia not answer to state's track woes

January 11, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

On the matter of the health of horse racing in Maryland, to paraphrase the story of the Roman emperor Nero, the city is burning while the fiddlers fiddle.

True, there is a whirlwind of activity around the racetrack. Joe De Francis and the Manfuso brothers are about to settle their dispute over the ownership of Laurel and Pimlico. De Francis is attempting to build a new track near Dulles Airport. Jack Kent Cooke wants to build a new stadium for the Redskins next to Laurel.

But you will notice that the whirlwind has nothing to do with racing. It's just business. Just a stack of zeros. And it obscures the undeniable truth that Maryland racing is at a low ebb.

Attendance is down. The tracks are getting run down. The quality of the racing? It certainly isn't improving. Laurel recently has run some $4,000 claiming races.

The big events (the Preakness, the Maryland Million, the International) remain in good health. But day to day, the sport is suffering from a lack of excitement. Going to the races is kind of depressing.

True, racing everywhere has suffered during the recession. Lotteries and other mainstream gambling have eroded the sport's base. Yet, tracks in Arkansas and Kentucky -- of comparable size -- are thriving. It's not just the economy.

So, what happens now? First of all, the ownership issue gets settled. That looks like an easy one. De Francis has been in charge of the tracks since the death of his father, and, from the way he is negotiating with Cooke and Virginia, it would appear he intends to buy out the Manfusos and continue to run things.

Whether he is suited for the job is a matter of debate. He is a sharp, energetic deal maker, but many in the state's horse community think he lacks the proper vision. They complain about his being insulated from fans and horsemen. Of course, he is awfully young to be running a racetrack. He could grow into the job.

In any event, he needs help. With the colossal debt service he faces, he needs a major new investor. If he gets the money, he should work to reinvigorate the Maryland circuit. That, not Virginia, should be his top priority.

The notion that Virginia can save Maryland racing is, simply, a bunch of bull. Virginia has no history of supporting major-league racing. Maryland has done it for decades. There is a market here. It just needs a new tap. New ideas.

The first step should be a cut in the amount of racing. There is too much. A show that never stops is going to suffer. To the average fan, Maryland racing has no season, no focus. It is hard to distinguish the important from the irrelevant.

With simulcasting, a track can close and still make money. That's what Maryland should do. Shut down in August, December, January. Create clearly defined spring and fall meetings. Give fans something to anticipate.

Give them a break, too. Between the price of admission, parking, programs, sodas and a Racing Form, a fan is out $20 before making a bet. That's too much.

As well, find new ways to sell the sport. Create a presence at the Inner Harbor. Tap into Baltimore's tourist trade. Provide shuttles to the track. Make it user-friendly. And overhaul facilities. More people will go to clean, bright tracks.

And sell horses, not gambling. There is a stunning lack of emphasis on the athletes in racing right now. Yet they are its strength. The thrill of competition is the difference between racing and the lottery. It is a sport, not just another crunch of numbers. Use that. Promise that drama.

Lastly, how's this for an idea: A Preakness Museum. Nostalgia sells, and Baltimore, one of the cornerstone towns in American racing, has a fabulous story to tell. Get the films, trophies and pictures. Tell the story. If they can make an aquarium hip, they can make racing hip. It's already been done, in fact. The Kentucky Derby Museum is a hit in Louisville. A Preakness clone at Pimlico could become a linchpin of the Maryland industry.

As things stand now, however, De Francis isn't attempting to parlay that history into new fans. He is de-emphasizing Baltimore. His Virginia plan would eliminate the Pimlico fall meeting. Laurel would have 115 dates, to Pimlico's 60.

This is self-defeating. Laurel is a sterile betting barn. Pimlico is a colorful, historical place -- a Triple Crown track, remember -- in a tourist city. It should be the centerpiece of any revitalization.

Of course, we're talking about a sizable investment here, money De Francis doesn't have now. He desperately needs that new investor. If he finds one, great. He seems to have the energy to tackle this job. But if he can't find the money, he should sell to someone who can. Otherwise, Maryland racing loses big.

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