Two separate but interrelated events during the past 10 days indicate that Maryland racing is in a stronger position than many might have believed.
First, there was a record-setting Preakness. More money was wagered on a race featuring a duel between Tabasco Cat and Go For Gin than was bet on the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer rivalry of 1989, which formerly out-ranked any other Preakness in history.
More than 100,000 people attended one of the state's eight pari-mutuel wagering outlets on May 21 and bet more than $8 million on the races, either live or simulcast, offered in Maryland that day.
A couple of days later at a different sort of horse-industry venue -- the sale of 2-year-old thoroughbreds at the Timonium Fairgrounds -- the average price of a racing prospect jumped about 25 percent from a year ago. Nearly half of the 134 horses auctioned off were purchased by Maryland owners.
What precipitated record wagering on a horse race and a record thoroughbred sale within the space of a couple of days?
Pimlico Race Course owner Joe De Francis cites several reasons for the Preakness success -- resurgence in the interest in racing, both live and simulcasts, an improved distribution system through the addition of an inter-track and off-track betting network, tremendous media coverage and community-wide support in Preakness-related activities, including revival of the Preakness Parade.
"We had superb weather, but the weather was also excellent last year," De Francis said. "I think coverage of some of our recent problems, like our 1993 losses and terrible winter weather, vTC diverted attention from the fact that for the last nine months our business has been running significantly ahead of last year. I truly believe we are in the midst of a strong recovery."
Mason Grasty, executive vice president of Fasig-Tipton Midlantic, Inc., which conducted the Timonium auction, said the two comments he heard most frequently at his sale were that buyers were pleased with the quality of the horses offered and that "a premium was being paid for the Maryland-bred prospect that showed some run."
Building on these recent successes is now the fundamental challenge.
How does De Francis plan to keep the Preakness spirit alive year-round?
"These are a few of the ways: By following through with an improved customer-service plan, expanding our OTB network into Hagerstown and St. Mary's County and making capital improvements to our plants," De Francis said.
He added that his sister, Karin De Francis Van Dyke, is now involved in day-to-day operations. "She's a major owner. She's excellent with people and having her here is already proving to be beneficial," he said.
Lasix at Fair Hill
For the first time, jumpers racing on the Memorial Day card at Fair Hill Race Course tomorrow will be able to run on the anti-bleeding medication Lasix.
"There is a series of jump races offered now at Laurel and Pimlico," said Fair Hill director Gregg Morris. "Jumpers running there are allowed to race on Lasix so it seemed inconsistent not to permit them to run here with it, too."
Of about 90 horses running tomorrow, Morris said 22 of them will race with Lasix.
The track is offering a nine-race card beginning at 1 p.m.
Morris added that Fair Hill's fall race date has been moved to Sunday, Oct. 30, and will be presented with a total weekend package also involving Fair Hill's International 3-Day and Combined Driving Events.
It is the first time the Fair Hill races will be conducted on a Sunday.
Belmont success for Luzzi
Former Maryland jockey Mike Luzzi has adapted so well to New York racing that he is now challenging Mike Smith and Jerry Bailey for the leading rider title at Belmont Park.
Through Friday, Luzzi was tied for second place with Bailey with 17 wins. Smith is in the lead.
"For a couple of days I was in front," Luzzi said. "But it's a tough meet."
Luzzi left Maryland last winter to ride at Aqueduct and was an immediate success.
"Nothing has really slowed down since the better horses and riders came back from Florida," Luzzi said. "I rode a winner for Shug McGaughey last week which paid $44."
Luzzi said that if he continues to do well, "I'll go on to Saratoga this summer and then this fall I'll look to buy a house here. Right now, though, I'm still renting and keeping my options open."
Luzzi rides Sonny's Bruno today in the $150,000 Peter Pan stakes, a New York prep for the June 11 Belmont Stakes.
Good bloodlines for Blusiewicz
When local trainer Leon Blusiewicz went to the Keeneland Yearling Sales in Kentucky last fall, he couldn't resist buying a colt sired by Cormorant and a filly and a colt sired by Storm Cat.
So, after the first two Triple Crown races, who are two of the hottest sires in America?
Cormorant is the sire of Kentucky Derby winner, Go For Gin, and Storm Cat's son, Tabasco Cat, won last weekend's Preakness.