Racing: Call it partly sunny Guarded optimism in Md. is tempered by flat betting numbers

October 17, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

As thoroughbred racing enthusiasts turn their attention today to the sport's second-biggest day in Maryland, the commercials on television plead for slot machines at the racetracks. The commercials cry out: Preserve the state's horse racing industry.

The presumption is that Delaware, which embraces slots at its three tracks, threatens horse racing in Maryland. A further presumption is that horse racing in Maryland is on its last leg.

The state's Standardbred industry, which supports harness tracks in Prince George's County and on the Eastern Shore, has clearly suffered because of slots in Delaware. The future of the harness industry in Maryland is fraught with peril.

But what about the larger thoroughbred industry -- its racetracks, farms and supporting businesses? On the day of its annual celebration, the 13th Maryland Million at Laurel Park, what is the state of thoroughbred racing in Maryland?

"The state of the industry's OK," said Tim Capps, executive director of Maryland Million Ltd. and executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "There's sort of a qualified optimism out there.

"There's also an understandable concern about what's going to happen next. People aren't sure what the next three or four years are going to bring."

The signals are conflicting.

On one hand, a record number of horses, 135, were entered in the 11 Maryland Million races. Capps attributes that, in part, to the recent break during the Colonial Downs' meet, which left trainers eager to run their horses, especially on dirt. He also attributed it, even more, to the increasing popularity of Maryland Million Day.

"People have really put their arms around this event," Capps said. "It has become what was intended at the beginning: Maryland's day at the races."

The day can help make a stallion's reputation, especially a young stallion, if his offspring perform well. It can also enrich an owner. Purses of $1,025,000 will be awarded.

Even tomorrow, next week and next month, after the day's glow has faded, Maryland horsemen will vie for the richest purses ever offered in the state. They are on par with those at Delaware Park.

Because of that, Delaware has not substantially hurt racing at Pimlico and Laurel Park. But as the TV commercials point out -- commercials paid for by the racetracks, not the horsemen and breeders -- Marylanders are betting millions of dollars into Delaware's slot machines.

"Thank you, Maryland!" actors in the commercials gloat again and again.

On the other hand, horsemen realize Maryland purses are high not because business is booming at the tracks but because of state grants. And those grants could be endangered by shifting political winds after the election or, even more seriously, by a downturn in the economy.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved more than $10 million in aid for horse racing. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who opposes slot machines, signed the subsidy into law. Glendening's opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, has been against casino-style gambling but says she would consider legalizing slot machines to help the racing industry, perhaps after a statewide referendum.

In Delaware, meanwhile, the General Assembly has authorized each of the state's three tracks to double its slot machines from 1,000 to 2,000. Because a percentage of slots revenue by law feeds into purses, that can mean only one thing: Continued purse increases at Delaware Park, perhaps to threatening levels in the next year or two.

Of even greater concern is something happening -- or not happening -- at Maryland's thoroughbred tracks, off-track betting sites and simulcast outlets around the country.

Betting in Maryland is flat. The out-of-state simulcast market, which has grown dramatically in recent years, is saturated.

"There's not much growth in the pari-mutuel market right now," Capps said. "If things stay the way they are, if handle remains stagnant and costs inevitably rise, the tracks are looking at their profitability ebbing away. They don't know where the next level of growth is going to come from."

So Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, "continues beating on the slots-machine drum," in Capps' words.

De Francis also wants telephone wagering, where bettors establish accounts and bet on races from home or office. These aren't novel approaches. They're working in other states.

"If we had slots like Delaware has, and if we had a phone system like Pennsylvania has, we could have facilities that would make Arlington pale by comparison," said De Francis, referring to the Arlington racetrack near Chicago, one of the country's most beautiful. "We could have purses that exceed New York's and southern California's. The sky's the limit."

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