Laurel moves on with a Case of the Blues win

Betting, attendance down, but Pimlico around corner

March 27, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

With an eye toward Pimlico and the state's premier racing, Laurel Park closed yesterday after downturns in betting and attendance. Jim Mango, Maryland Jockey Club chief operations officer, attributed the setbacks to nasty winter weather, the temporary closing of two off-track betting sites and the permanent shutdown of a third.

Bad weather shouldn't be a problem the next three months as Maryland's thoroughbred racing shifts Wednesday to Pimlico. Its spring meet features two of the nation's top races, the Pimlico Special on May 13 and the Preakness on May 20. The meet ends June 18, when racing returns to Laurel.

Yesterday, Case of the Blues, a small 3-year-old filly with an oversized heart, closed the Laurel winter stakes schedule with her third straight stakes win. The 3-5 favorite in a scratch-depleted field of five, Case of the Blues stalked a snail's pace before wearing down the leaders for a one-length victory in the $75,000 Wide Country Stakes.

For jockey Mark Johnston, who rode Case of the Blues, the victory was his fourth of the day. Johnston led all jockeys at the Laurel fall and winter meets with 129 wins.

Told in the winner's circle that he was the leading rider, the gentlemanly Johnston said: "I was? I ride for a lot of good trainers, and they all play a big part in my success."

Dale Capuano led trainers with 45 victories, edging Hamilton Smith by one. Smith conditions Case of the Blues, whom he described as "the best Maryland-bred filly on the grounds now. She's small, but she's a tough one."

On Wednesday, when patrons descend upon Pimlico, they'll find workers completing numerous projects, bringing the 130-year-old track up to code. The city required the improvements because Maryland Jockey Club officials applied for permits to build new barns, install brick-and-wrought iron fencing and add exterior landscaping.

Marty Azola, vice president of facilities at Pimlico and Laurel Park, said the Maryland Jockey Club was spending $1.4 million at Pimlico on "structural and egress upgrades. This year was code upgrades almost exclusively. It's not terribly sexy."

After seeing state-of-the-art simulcast theaters and wagering rooms constructed at Laurel Park, patrons might be disappointed at finding mostly stairwell upgrades at Pimlico. The most noticeable change will involve the first-floor balcony, "the horsemen's porch." Workers have redesigned aisles and are constructing stairways off the front to improve fire safety.

Mango, the MJC chief operations officer, said he's optimistic about the Pimlico meet after a promising March at Laurel. Compared to March 1999, in-state betting at Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft Raceway and OTBs increased 7 percent and out-of-state betting on Maryland races rose 20 percent.

Those increases tempered losses in January and February after two OTBs closed for renovations (Poor Jimmy's and Port Tobacco) and a third (The Shoals) had shut down last year. From Jan. 1 through yesterday, in-state betting fell 3.6 percent compared to the same period last year ($128,554,658 to $133,316,609). Attendance at the three tracks for the same period fell 3.2 percent (522,893 to 539,789).

Mango said that if the OTBs had remained open and accepted the same amount of wagers as last year, in-state betting would have risen 1 percent.

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