With spectacle of Preakness Day past, a worrisome quiet settles over Pimlico

May 16, 1999|By Michael Olesker

IT'S QUIET AT Pimlico Race Course this morning. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of cleanup crews sweeping losing parimutuel tickets from the ground. Sweep, sweep, sweep. Or you can wonder whatever happened to Parris Glendening. Wonder, wonder, wonder. Or you might recall the sound of Jim McKay, trying to laugh around the rough spots. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

McKay, the old ABC-TV sportscaster and Maryland horseman, hosted last week's Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico, where racing types and various hangers-on gathered to drum up interest in yesterday's 124th running of the Preakness Stakes.

McKay remembered half a century ago, at the dawning of the age of television, when WMAR-TV beamed its first telecast, from Pimlico, against the better judgment of the track's owners.

"They thought television would hurt the gate," McKay laughed. "There were maybe 200 television sets in Baltimore, and they were all in bars. And the next day, H. L. Mencken wrote, `I wouldn't spend ten minutes watching it, even if it included a massacre.' "

Well, there are no massacres at Pimlico, at least for now. They had more than 100,000 folks show up yesterday, which holds off all financial catastrophe for the moment. But all those revelers, and all their money, misspent and otherwise, only temporarily disguise what everybody knows: They're staging a holding action in Maryland racing, waiting for someone to lead the sport out of the wilderness.

At last week's Alibi Breakfast, normally attended by all manner of political types, neither Gov. Glendening nor Mayor Schmoke posted. "The press of business, I guess," said a disappointed Jim McKay, who'd expected to introduce Glendening.

Antagonism might be a better guess. Wounds dating from last year's fight over slot machines, and track owner Joe De Francis' TV commercials in the midst of a bitter gubernatorial campaign, haven't precisely healed.

Though there isn't much talk of slots these days, it's a fact that at Delaware's race tracks, slot revenues have helped boost average daily purses from about $40,000 just five years ago to more than $100,000 today.

Since slots, Delaware's tracks have pocketed more than $630 million off the proceeds, and state government has taken in more than $360 million.

Joe De Francis reads those numbers and shakes his head ruefully. He's got a 129-year-old facility, the second-oldest in America, which he says needs about $100 million in improvements. A year ago, on glorious Preakness Day, the lights went out and everybody stumbled around in the dark, sweltering and looking quite ghostly. It seemed a haunting metaphor for an entire industry.

On Preakness Day, the track generally produces 300 percent of its income. In other words, the rest of the year, it loses money.

And though De Francis sees slots as the panacea, that's only part of it. Racing needs to cultivate a new generation of fans. For years, it's failed to attract young people, many of whom don't understand the sport, and find the waiting between races interminable, and show up on Preakness Day for the infield partying but are generally oblivious to any horse races going on around them.

"We're trying to address that," Karin De Francis was saying last week. She's Joe's sister and senior vice president of Pimlico. She talked about a Pony Palace Kids Club they've created to bring children to the track to build an early psychological foundation.

This gets a little tricky, since racing's an industry built on the gambling instinct. But the Pony Palace just introduces the kids to juvenile delights: trips to the barns, visits with jockeys.

"They find out the horses have pets in the stalls, like goats and geese," De Francis said. "And we have birthday parties for the kids, and name races after them. We have art contests for teen-agers. We want to educate young people about the sport and get them involved, and understand the passion that we feel for the sport."

But most of this won't pay immediate dividends. Nine-year olds don't blow their allowance on long shots. While waiting for kids' interests and their income to converge, Pimlico's running steady television ads.

"The most ever," says Karin De Francis. "Close to $1 million this year, a continuous TV presence."

The good news is: Leading up to yesterday's Preakness, attendance and betting were up this spring. The bad news: Yesterday's Preakness is over, and it's much quieter today at Pimlico. Instead of 100,000 people, they'll be thrilled if one-tenth that many people show up any day the rest of this spring meet.

For all its good intentions, for all the jobs it provides and all the thrills it gives its fans, it's still an industry basking in yesterday's delights while edging anxiously toward its tomorrows.

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