If Colonial is winner, so is Maryland

September 04, 1997|By John Eisenberg

Well, the horses are up and running at Colonial Downs in Virginia, and all it took was the usual fistful of referendums, lawsuits, threats and bad jokes that it takes to get anything done in racing.

We should rename it, "The Sport of Kings -- and the Kings' Lawyers, Too."

A lot of people in Maryland thought they would see Northern Dancer come back to life before they saw Laurel and Pimlico go dark to bring light to a track near Williamsburg, Va., but that is what has happened and several essential questions are begged.

Such as: Is this a good thing for Maryland?

And: Will Colonial Downs survive?

The answer to the first question is yes, this is good for Maryland.

Whether Colonial Downs will survive is the more debatable issue given the poor record of new American tracks in the '80s and '90s, but the smart money says this one has a chance to succeed.

The fact that Maryland will have no live racing for 42 days is bizarre -- the state has had year-round racing since 1975 -- and it's problematic for those who earn their keep around Laurel and Pimlico. But the big picture is positive.

Maryland racing has desperately needed an extended break for a long time; the steady drone of nonstop, year-round racing long ago numbed fans and oversaturated the market.

Aside from the day of the Preakness and a few other big races, the action at Maryland's tracks is a faceless blur.

Taking racing away for a while should make fans appreciate it more when it comes back.

In fact, Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis should try to convince the state racing commission to reduce the number of racing days even more.

The most successful tracks these days run short, seasonal meetings, such as Gulfstream in the winter, Churchill Downs in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Colonial Downs is following that model with its short September/October meeting, and Maryland would do well to follow the model, too.

"No sport is successful operating 12 months a year," De Francis said recently.

The Colonial break also should help the quality of Maryland racing.

The local horse industry won't have to provide as many fresh, quality horses -- a demand that was driving down the product -- and purses will improve because the Maryland Jockey Club will still make money during the Colonial meeting thanks to the magic of simulcasting, and some of those profits will go into purses at Laurel and Pimlico.

Clearly, Maryland racing will benefit over the long haul if Colonial Downs succeeds.

But will it?

The recent record of new tracks is discouraging: Canterbury Downs in Minnesota and the Birmingham Turf Club in Alabama closed, and Sam Houston Park in Houston, Texas, and Retama Park in San Antonio, Texas, have declared bankruptcy. (Lone Star Park, in Dallas, fared better at its first meeting this summer.)

With the sport seemingly fighting a losing battle with casinos and lottery games for the betting public's dollar, there is reason to wonder if any new track can thrive -- especially one in Virginia, which doesn't produce that many thoroughbreds and isn't renowned for its bettors.

But Colonial has things going for it that some of the other start-up tracks lacked, such as money in the bank, little debt and a license to operate off-track betting centers.

In fact, two OTB parlors in Virginia already have been open for almost a year, giving Colonial the financial wherewithal to maintain purses at a solid level throughout its inaugural meeting, even if few fans come through the turnstiles and bet.

Track management felt confident enough to extend a promise of $167,000 a day in purses for this year and next year, and that's big; the other start-up tracks had to cut purses almost immediately when their wagering levels failed to meet expectations, and a track is all but dead when it starts cutting purses.

Maintaining competitive purses is the best way to lure Maryland-based owners, trainers and jockeys, which Colonial must do to survive.

Of course, Colonial can't survive solely on its upbeat financial sheet. As with any new venture, it must sell itself to fans, treat customers well, prove itself legitimate and put on a good show.

The biggest problem will be finding enough horses, and, regardless of purse sizes, it remains to be seen whether Marylanders will drive three hours to put a horse in a starting gate.

Racing secretary Lenny Hale already is struggling to fill his daily cards, even though the cement in the grandstand is barely set -- not a good sign.

But, hey, there were a million rumors in Maryland about Colonial not starting on time -- unfounded rumors, it turned out -- and the track's failure to get its signature turf course ready for this meeting is costing it horses in the short term.

If Colonial can get through this year's meeting, particularly these early days, without falling apart, it should be in good shape for next year.

With a fine dirt track and a turf course that figures to be among the best, luring horses should be easier. The plan is for Colonial to run six to eight turf races a day starting next year, and trainers are always looking for turf races, of which there are few at other tracks.

Quality tracks, consistent purses and a sound financial picture give Colonial a real shot at succeeding.

It would be smart to change the meeting to summer, when the area around Colonial is overrun with tourists; a short, summer meeting would be the best way to sell Colonial to Marylanders, as a local, lower-case Saratoga.

But regardless of when it runs, Colonial is good for Maryland, and people who care about Maryland racing should root for it to succeed.

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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