All alone in the stretch Horse racing: The dwindling number of local horseplayers, many who are old enough to remember the sport's heyday 30-40 years ago, has industry worried.

August 24, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

It's two minutes to the third race at Pimlico on a hot and lazy weekday afternoon.

The grandstand has only a handful of horseplayers poring quietly over their racing charts, marking their choices and looking up to watch the odds flicker on the giant, infield toteboard.

Empty wrappers, beer cups and discarded betting slips swirl back and forth on the cracked asphalt, as white-haired men with canes and binoculars crisscross the grounds. Many wear faded caps from long-forgotten races or out-of-state tracks.

Thoroughbred racing at the venerable Pimlico Race Course is a far cry from the sport's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s when it rivaled baseball as the nation's dominant spectator sport. Today, the fan base has grown so thin that industry leaders may have a hard time rallying support and sympathy for state aid to insulate them from what they fear is an impending downturn.

When football or baseball stadiums are debated, there is a ready constituency of avid fans to rally. Not so in racing.

A few big races bring out enthusiastic crowds, and off-track betting has attracted some new faces. But racing's day-to-day following in America is increasingly made up of older men who took up the sport during its boom days after World War II.

"A football team is easy to identify with. . . . This is a different issue. I think the fan base is out there, but it is more diffuse," said Timothy Capps, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"I think the same rationale that applies to people wanting the Orioles and so desperately wanting football back applies to horse racing. I think people who don't go to the tracks recognize the cultural and historic importance of racing," Capps said.

At its peak, Maryland racing had a robust following. In the age before slot machines and state-run lotteries, fans flocked to short, eagerly anticipated meets at Havre de Grace, Pimlico, Bowie, Laurel and Cumberland. Opening day at Pimlico was a rite of spring, like Camden Yards' home opener is today.

Now the state's thoroughbred racing is confined to two tracks, Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore and Laurel in Anne Arundel County, which are owned by the same family and operate year-round. The exception comes each year at this time, when racing shifts to the 10-day meet at Timonium during the Maryland State Fair.

Playing hooky

Longtime players, such as Joe O'Connor of Crofton, say the tracks in their heyday were crowded with fans playing hooky from work. Some, like him, pooled their money with friends to buy a horse.

"The war was over and our age group was getting into the horse business," said O'Connor, a 74-year-old retired surveyor.

No one complained about the food or housekeeping, which he thinks was far worse than today.

"It's been fun to me all my life; I love horses," O'Connor said. He now alternates days at the track with days on the golf course.

But the big crowds are a thing of the past. Serious players still come, some opting for the plusher confines of the track's members club or the casino-like sports palace. But their ranks have thinned.

"I know nearly everybody here," said Bob Glassmyer, looking over his shoulder at the sparsely filled grandstands at Pimlico one recent afternoon. A 50-year-old retired track worker, he said he comes nearly every day.

Once it was difficult to get a season pass to a track. "You had to know somebody. Now they give them away," he said.

Tom Aronson, an industry consultant with the Racing Resource Group of Alexandria, Va., said falling attendance is not unique to Maryland, or even entirely the fault of the industry.

"It hasn't done and hasn't been allowed to do as effective a job exposing itself to the public, so you don't have that level of public outcry. It's axiomatic that when you have gambling, then you are not going to get people to carry placards and march on city hall," Aronson said.

And claims of racing's pivotal role in the state's economy -- its boosters used to routinely boast, incorrectly, that it was the state's second-biggest industry -- don't hold up well to scrutiny.

Charles McMillion is a consultant with MBG Consulting Inc. who, as a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University, guided a mammoth study of the state's economy. He said racing is one of several businesses whose impact often is overstated by advocates.

"I'm sure racing is important to the families that have been there for generations. But from a strictly economic point of view, I can't imagine it's particularly crucial," McMillion said.

Support in powerful circles

The industry has, nonetheless, traditionally been a powerful one in political circles, and that alone may be enough to win it support.

Horse owners tend to be affluent and politically active. State campaign finance reports show that the Maryland track owners, officials and their families gave more than $80,000 to candidates the four-year election cycle that ended in December 1994.

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