Preakness Day helps Pimlico come from behind

May 25, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Hold the obituaries, and please omit flowers. The state of horse racing in Maryland, thought to be troubled and traumatized, is making a comeback. There's no need to resuscitate the victim or stand in line to offer condolences.

Preakness Day 1994 set records for the sport that have taken it to a new level of achievement and acceptability. The entire industry has gathered impetus and optimism from an outpouring of fan-presence and re-generated betting support.

"It's what I've been trying to say for a long time," said Joe De Francis, president of Pimlico and Laurel. "The perception was since we lost money last year, everything was wrong. That's not true, and the financial figures support it. Forget the funeral dirge. We surpassed two barriers that were considered unattainable."

What De Francis is referring to is a mutuel handle of $8 million and attendance of 100,000. The total bet on the Preakness program reached $8,220,000. As for the crowd count, taking in Pimlico and two other locations, Laurel and Rosecroft, plus the four Maryland off-track betting sites, it adds up, he said, to more than 100,000.

The turnout at the Preakness, according to De Francis, was 86,343. Hopefully, the figures are authentic because Pimlico, in the past, has had trouble telling the truth when it came to reporting how many spectators were in the plant. One year, in a previous administration, the track jacked up the Preakness total 30,000. Not 3,000, but an astonishing 30,000, which qualified as a record for a promoter violating a trust in deceiving the press and public.

De Francis insists the 1994 crowd figures are correct, even if others still reserve the right to think to the contrary. But where he's on solid ground, without reason for doubt, is when he enumerates the monetary aspects of the Preakness handle.

In 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer contested what evolved into the greatest Preakness in history, the betting handle came to $7,815,000. That was the last year his De Francis' late father, Frank, was in charge. For four subsequent Preaknesses the record held.

But this time Joe was in the presidential saddle and the Preakness card escalated to $8,220,000. "Right now, the sky's the limit," he said with enthusiasm. "Ultimately, we'd like to reach $10 million. That's admittedly an ambitious goal, but, you have to admit, it's a nice round number."

Adding more luster to De Francis' belief that racing is initiating a monumental comeback is when he contrasts the first three months of 1993 and 1994.

"We're up 32 percent in that time frame," he said. "That's truly significant. Last year, the betting reached $82,399,000. This time, we show $108,444,000 for the same period. And, don't forget the bad winter caused us to lose two weeks of racing days."

Another imposing figure is that the total amount, world-wide, bet on the Preakness Day program exceeded $28 million. A more modest reading, but certainly one that bodes well for Maryland's four franchised off-track betting sites, shows $604,463 went through the system in Frederick, North East, Cambridge and Colonial Beach, Va.

The Kentucky Derby, which goes unchallenged as America's greatest day of racing, reached $554,190 at the same sites, but the provincialism factor led to the Preakness doing better.

"Unlike what has happened in other states, all of the OTBs in Maryland are profitable," said Tom Lattanzi, who has been De Francis' chief lieutenant in putting a complex concept into smooth working order.

"Hopefully, the rest of the year will continue to be positive. All the signs are encouraging. So far, the OTB operations have created at least 250 more direct jobs in the state and maybe double that number when you include how it has impacted on other types of employment. We have momentum and are well on our way."

The Maryland racing season, whether it's a plus or minus, is virtually unending. It never shuts down. The players, meaning you, you and you, never get a rest, so innovative ideas are needed to maintain interest. The sport gets a heavy dose of adrenalin when the band plays "Maryland My Maryland" and the horses head for the Preakness post.

But Maryland racing, to be successful, has to be more than the Preakness, although it is the centerpiece in the overall format and is the catalyst for good and profitable developments in the future.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.