With little fanfare, Pimlico Race Course began its 125th year of thoroughbred racing last week, an event that was inadequately appreciated by city officials but would be sorely missed if the track ceased operations. For once, Pimlico's spring opening is a time of optimism. The DeFrancis family has embarked on a five-year plan to upgrade the facility. Efforts are under way to make patrons feel more at home. The threat of lethal competition from casino gambling has receded temporarily. And business is on a sharp upswing.
Thanks to a surge in off-track betting at seven sites and the popularity of simulcast wagering, Pimlico's betting reached nearly $2 million in its initial racing days. That follows the trend at the winter Laurel meet, where wagering rose 29 percent, or $39 million. That's grand news for those whose livelihoods depend on horse racing in Maryland. As the weather improves, so should turnout. It could be a record year.
Bigger handles are crucial. The larger the wagering base, the more money is returned to jockeys, trainers and owners in the form of higher purses. It also means more money to reinvest in Pimlico and Laurel. That, in turn, ought to make the thoroughbred tracks more appealing for Marylanders to spend an enjoyable day watching the ponies.
Ever since tax-law changes in the mid-1980s, the racing industry has been troubled. The recession worsened matters. Some tracks, such as Charles Town, have closed. Maryland's two harness tracks may not reopen.
For Pimlico and Laurel, a recovery has begun, but the situation remains tenuous. Casino gambling would destroy this state's racing industry. The fan appeal of horse racing still is skewed the wrong way demographically: Too many aging bettors and too few 30-something track devotees. Turning Pimlico and Laurel into venues of choice for younger sports fans is a major challenge.
The Baltimore region is fortunate to have a venerable and viable race track on its doorstep. When Pimlico first opened, Ulysses S. Grant had just been elected president. Twelve thousand people showed up for the grand event -- double the number in attendance at Pimlico on Tuesday.
Times have changed. But the allure of parimutuel horse racing and watching these graceful animals and skilled riders in competitive action remains the same. In late May, the Preakness Stakes will grab all the headlines. But it is thrill enough to show up at the track before then to savor one of the true joys of springtime in Maryland -- a day at the races at historic Old Hilltop.