Two-State Racing Strategy

October 18, 1994

It is a high-stakes gamble that could cost Marylanders a bundle: a joint horse-racing circuit between this state and Virginia. For nine months each year, no live racing will occur in the Baltimore area; in the summer, major racing will shift out of state entirely to the new Colonial Downs near Richmond -- 160 miles from Baltimore.

While this could turn out to be a bonanza for Pimlico-Laurel owner Joe De Francis, Maryland might end up a big loser. Employees at the state tracks will be out of work for the entire summer. Related businesses could be affected. State taxes will be reduced. And there's no guarantee that owners and trainers will van their horses some three hours to Colonial Downs.

Based on other states' experiences, the Virginia race track might be a dud. Virginians don't have a long history of pari-mutuel wagering. The Richmond track could prove a mediocre enterprise. Maryland will have given up one-quarter of its racing calendar without any beneficial returns.

Mr. De Francis has another scenario in mind: A new pool of bettors at Colonial Downs (which he will manage) generating enough profit for him to increase the purses at Maryland's tracks by 75 percent. That would do more than anything to stimulate Laurel and Pimlico by drawing a better caliber of thoroughbreds. Profits from Virginia's off-tracking betting parlors would also boost Mr. De Francis' ability to upgrade his Maryland tracks.

The Maryland Racing Commission needs to examine this proposal closely. Colonial Downs will be the center of Mr. De Francis' attention for the next year or two. Where does that leave Laurel and Pimlico? The tracks are badly in need of physical improvements and marketing. Business has been on the upswing in recent months but the last thing Maryland needs in racing is an absentee owner whose heart is in Richmond.

Commissioners should quiz Mr. De Francis on the depth of his commitment to his Maryland tracks. They also should consider lengthening the racing schedule at Timonium (now centered around the state fair) to provide a mid-summer employment base for local owners and trainers who don't want to move to Richmond for 100 days. Leaving Baltimore without live racing for three-quarters of the year isn't smart business.

The notion of a two-state racing circuit has considerable appeal, especially if it leads to heftier purses. But developing a pari-mutuel racing culture in Virginia won't happen overnight. Mr. De Francis may be expecting too much, too soon. If he's wrong, the entire Maryland racing industry could suffer.

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