Abracadabra! $10 million worth of equine magic

March 27, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- As a man who's spent a good part of his life on the fringes of the Maryland race-horse business, and who still makes a few dollars out of it in a good year, I really have to hand it to the Maryland legislature -- and then hope the legislature will hand some back to me.

The legislature, like that mysterious fellow on the backstretch who always seems to be dodging around the corner while carrying a hypodermic needle, is preparing to perform a little equine magic. It's going to save Maryland's thoroughbred racing industry. It will protect the hallowed Preakness. It will make Sufferin' Joe DeFrancis happy at last.

Not least, it will warm the hearts of all the working stiffs in the shedrows on the track -- grooms, hotwalkers, jockeys' agents, van drivers and one-horse trainers -- and their counterparts on the horse farms out in the boonies. It will keep the wicked slot machines from advancing across Maryland's borders. It will make every black-eyed susan bloom with greater luster.

And, who knows, before it's finished it may even save the extinguished stud career of poor Maryland-bred Cigar, who, much like Maryland racing itself, has known great days and now faces an uncertain future. (At Country Life Farm in Bel Air, where Cigar was foaled, boss Josh Pons boasts wryly that "Cigar was sterile here first!")

And how do the legislators, led in this effort by state Sen. Thomas Bromwell of Baltimore County, propose to accomplish all these miracles? Easy! They propose to give Mr. DeFrancis $10 million of the Maryland taxpayers' money, so that he can fatten up purses at Pimlico and Laurel, so that in turn horsemen will run their horses in Maryland instead of places like Pennsylvania and (hiss!) Delaware, and so that in turn bettors will flock to the Maryland racetracks to do their share by losing even more money there.

Why didn't I think of that?

What I can't figure out is, why didn't anyone else come up with this brilliant solution years ago, when Maryland racing first started to decay? I guess we're all just a little slow -- Charlestown-quality intellectual plodders, you might say, compared with the sharp stakes-class crowd that's now moved in down to Annapolis.

Anyway, the Bromwell idea has tremendous promise -- so much so that, before adjournment, the legislature really ought to consider using it to save other cherished Maryland activities. Throw $10 million here, $10 million there, and pretty soon everything will be in such good shape in our state that all those nattering nabobs of negativism will stop their complaining and join everybody else at the racetrack backing all those new horses.

It's understandable that the politicians are panicky. Next year's an election year, and nobody wants to be blamed for ruining Maryland racing, or losing the Preakness. But they shouldn't stop with the racetracks. Opportunities to put the state's largesse to work saving other endangered businesses are all around us.

For example, wagon wheels. Years ago almost every self-respecting community had a wheelwright who built spoked wooden wheels, usually with steel rims, for farm wagons and other horse-drawn vehicles. Yet now this entire industry has vanished. With a $10 million grant, surely three or four wheelwrights could be found and employed for a year or so, to jump-start to the revival of this important Maryland business. Wouldn't that be revolutionary!

Or consider newspapers. It wasn't long ago that Baltimore had three different general-circulation dailies providing both news and jobs. Today two of them are gone, along with entire trades, including linotype operators, stereotypers, and (I'm making a reader's assumption here) copy editors.

How tragic it would be if the third newspaper went the way of the wagon-wheel shops! Maybe the state should hand out one of those $10 million grants to The Sun, to keep it competitive. The money could be used to keep the best writers and editors from being lured away by out-of-state papers, especially those in Washington, Virginia and (hiss!) Delaware.

As for the Preakness, it would of course be a calamity of the highest magnitude if it were run some place other than Pimlico, say in Virginia or at (hiss!) Delaware Park, on the third Saturday in May. For one thing, no more Maryland-based bureaucrats would find themselves in position to mishandle the Preakness promotion budget, and no more Maryland politicians would get to push their way into the winner's circle.

The loss of the Preakness would mean that Maryland's greatest sporting event would be, without question, the Crisfield Crab Derby. That would be good for Crisfield, which deserves help. But the better course for the state would probably be just to give the Crab Derby a $10 million grant, plus the right to install parimutuel machines.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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