Va. deal is break for state of racing

October 14, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Strange as it sounds, Maryland horse racing will benefit from the loss of 70 dates to a new track in Virginia. It is a classic example of addition by subtraction.

As much as the state's racing industry has suffered under Joe De Francis' stewardship, let's give him credit for visionary thinking on this issue.

A year-round circuit at Laurel and Pimlico made sense when racing was growing in the 1970s and '80s, but today, with foal crops declining and state lottery games and casino gambling taking big bites out of racing's popularity, there are neither enough quality horses nor enough fans to sustain it.

The never-ending season has become a tired, bloated, outdated enterprise. It needs to shrink. Badly. And the summer dates, which are the ones scheduled for transfer to Virginia, are the right ones to go.

The spring and autumn seasons are still substantive enough, thanks primarily to big events such as the Preakness and Maryland Million, but the summer meetings have become exercises in forgettable racing. The lack of horses, a nationwide problem, hits home then. The Maryland circuit becomes indistinguishable from those in Pennsylvania and Delaware: dull races and mediocre horses, one after the other after the other.

Losing those summer dates is like losing an old pair of socks with holes in the heel.

Who cares?

Maryland racing has long needed a break in the circuit that drones on and on, creating a formless, unfocused season. The essence of any sport's appeal is anticipation, but there is nothing to anticipate if the season never ends. Besides, with the blur of numbers coming every day, who, other than hardened racetrackers, can distinguish between what is important and what is pointless?

The future of racing is short, seasonal, high-quality meetings patterned after Saratoga and Oaklawn. Quality instead of quantity. Supply not exceeding demand. The Maryland-Virginia

plan fits neatly into that landscape. There will be one meeting at Pimlico, in the spring, and one meeting at Laurel, in the fall and winter.

You can be sure that fans will appreciate a day at the races more if they know it won't always be there.

Of course, the success of the Virginia-Maryland circuit depends on the success of the new track planned for Virginia, and that's hardly a sure bet. In an age in which old, successful tracks are losing money and new tracks often aren't making it, the Virginia track will struggle to become legitimate.

The support of Maryland's horsemen would make it go, but they're not going to support it wholeheartedly until they see that it's worth going to the trouble of shifting their operations 200 miles. A hard sell, for sure.

Still, De Francis is right to try a partnership with Virginia. Maryland racing needs a bold initiative. The status quo is not acceptable.

These are desperate times for every track operator in the industry. With the rise of simulcasting and decline in the horse crop, fewer and fewer tracks are needed. Those that lack vision or aggressiveness could wind up shuttered. Every track needs a survival strategy. Putting a casino in the grandstand, as Hollywood Park did, is one. If you can't beat them, join them. Laurel and Pimlico would be wise to follow suit if casinos come to Maryland.

Certainly, De Francis can do much more than he has to save Laurel and Pimlico. His buildings are in disrepair. He could make thousands of new fans if he had a marketing presence at the Inner Harbor. There should be a Preakness Museum patterned after the successful Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville; the history is there.

De Francis has let Laurel and Pimlico slip badly while attending to out-of-state matters. Many people in the Maryland racing industry are frightened at the thought of him leading them into the next century. His record has been dismal. But the Virginia Racing Commission picked him to operate the new track. The commission members must have been impressed with something.

His decision to pare the Maryland racing season is his best move for the state since he took over the racetracks in 1989. Laurel and Pimlico will survive the dark days quite nicely on simulcasting revenues. The live racing seasons will gain a shape. There will be more quality races. Some people are sure to be upset at the loss of live dates, but it had to happen. Racing is a smaller sport than it was a decade ago. Period.

COLONIAL DOWNS AND THE MARYLAND-VIRGINIA CIRCUIT

Where: New Kent County, Va., 21 miles southeast of Richmond (about 160 miles from Baltimore).

Racing days: Jan. 1 through mid-April, 1996 (50 days harness), mid-June through mid-October, 1996 (102 days thoroughbred).

Land: 345 acres donated by Chesapeake Corp. Adjacent 10,000-acre site owned by Chesapeake Corp. is designed for 20-year residential and commercial development. Golf course next to track is already under construction.

Proposed cost: $40 million.

Seating capacity: 6,000, plus outdoor areas.

Parking capacity: 5,000 cars.

Racing surfaces: Inner seven-furlong turf course; one-mile dirt oval; outer 1 1/4 -mile turf course.

Proposed 1996 Maryland-Virginia thoroughbred schedule

Laurel: Jan. 1 through mid-March (Winter Sprintfest-Barbara Fritchie Handicap, General George Stakes).

Pimlico: Mid-March through mid-June (Preakness, Pimlico Special).

Colonial Downs: Mid-June through mid-October (De Francis Dash, Washington D.C. International).

Timonium: End of August through Labor Day (10-day Maryland State Fair meet). Timonium will run as usual and be part of the Maryland-Virginia betting network pending approval by the track's board.

G; Laurel: Mid-October through Dec. 31 (Maryland Million).

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