Horse racing self-help

January 20, 2004

ARE STOCKCARS speeding round and round and round a track intrinsically more entertaining than a galloping field of horses racing once around an oval? Logic suggests the two sports have a similar, if contrasting, appeal.

Yet, NASCAR claims 75 million fans. Horse racing boasts 38 million who make it to the track at least once a year, but only 3 million of the regular bettors who earn the sport of kings most of its money.

Part of the difference may simply be cultural. Not many Americans have contact with horses anymore, but most everyone has experienced at least a little flirtation in the long-running national romance with the car. Beyond that, though, is the skillfully aggressive marketing campaign that NASCAR has been employing for decades to promote its product.

As the debate resumes in Annapolis over how - or even whether- the General Assembly should try to boost Maryland's struggling share of horse racing, the industry would be wise to begin plotting how it can come to its own rescue.

A self-help approach could be an appealing lobbying tactic. Perhaps more important, given the resistance to slot machines and other forms of new subsidies, Maryland horse people may well require a Plan B.

Some friendly suggestions:

Get out the word. Marylanders tend to equate the racing industry with track owners who have let their facilities go to seed and now want to line their pockets with proceeds from expanded gambling. The valuable part is hidden: the breeders, the trainers, the stallions, the 200,000 acres of horse farms protecting open space. Jockeys are the sport's natural stars - extraordinary athletes whose careers span decades. How about some advertising and promotion?

Stop internal bickering. The horsemen don't get along with track owners, the thoroughbred folks war with the harness people; the conflicts not only prevent progress but also set the industry back, as in 2001, when infighting cost a $6.2 million state purse subsidy. Maryland horse people must come together on an economic development plan that includes at least one showcase facility and smarter scheduling of racing meets than the current lackluster weekday grind.

Make the most of available assets. Maryland racing offers much more than the Preakness, huge as that is. It also boasts a rich history that could be displayed in a first-class museum. Horse breeders, who recently launched a weekly TV show, could occasionally open their farms to school tours.

Believe in the product. Plans outlined so far for upgrading racetracks place so much emphasis on the need for slots and other attractions, such as concert halls and retail shops, that live racing looks expendable. That may be fine with track owners, but does nothing for the hands-on horse industry.

Beauty, tradition, speed, stars, competition and the right to wager on the outcome; when offered at a clean, comfortable, family-friendly facility with good food and drink, what more do fans need?

Give NASCAR a run for its money.

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