Cigar in Maryland? $1 million race: Superstar's appearance is type of event needed to draw new fans to sport.

August 17, 1996

IT IS A longshot, but the unexpected can happen. Track owner Joe De Francis has offered to set up a $1 million race to lure the famed Cigar to Laurel. What a boost that would be for Maryland's racing industry.

While Cigar's trainer is cool to the idea, the horse's owner hasn't turned it down. The impossible could yet happen. . . as we saw last weekend when the 6-year-old Maryland-bred bay, aiming for a record 17th consecutive win, lost convincingly to a 39-1 longshot.

Cigar in Maryland would be a fitting way to help conclude the renowned horse's career, since he was born here in 1990 at Country Life Farm in Harford County. Mr. De Francis deserves credit for attempting to stimulate local interest in his sport this way. Cigar is racing's superstar, a fact born out by the 44,000 fans who came to watch him go for the modern North American record at Del Mar.

Now look at Pimlico, where 5,600 fans showed up that same day. Ten or 15 years ago, Pimlico would have drawn two or three times that number. Local racing needs a boost.

Changes in tax laws and the recession of the early 1990s staggered the racing industry. Competition from other leisure activities, including casino gambling, is intense. Track owners have failed to broaden the appeal of their product.

Laurel and Pimlico are typical. The tracks are run down and need major overhauls. A luxurious grandstand, with a mix of restaurants and pleasant surroundings, would help catch the attention of more sports fans. Look at what Camden Yards has done for Oriole baseball.

But Mr. De Francis doesn't have the money to underwrite a costly face lift. The state should step in. This is, after all, a $1 billion Maryland industry that employs 16,000 people. It is also heavily regulated by Annapolis. If the Orioles and Ravens can get help from the state on new facilities, why not Pimlico and Laurel?

That is a question legislators and Gov. Parris Glendening should address. Plenty of viable methods exist to help pay for improvements and to help increase racing purses -- the best way to lure top-caliber horses like Cigar.

Maryland racing is in trouble. State officials can't pretend otherwise. They ought to start working on some creative solutions right away.

Pub Date: 8/17/96

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