Racing Toward Oblivion?

After a distinguished history here, the sport of kings has been in decline for decades, and slots aren't a real cure. Does Maryland still need horse racing?

September 25, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

Pimlico.

It's an evocative name, one of the best in sports, conjuring up images of classic moments in horse racing: Seabiscuit taking on War Admiral, the greats of this sport -- Citation and Secretariat, Whirlaway and Sir Barton -- racing to victory in the famed Preakness Stakes.

So, could it happen? Could the hooves cease to pound the furrowed dirt just off Northern Parkway?

Well, if you consider all the changes in the country and its sporting economy since Pimlico opened in 1870 -- built far out in the country, not in the midst of urban neighborhoods -- you could say it is amazing that the place is still open.

As to the future, it is clear that horse racing is not what it once was, to this country or this community. Inevitably, the Preakness is caught up in that decline.

Could it leave? Certainly. Would that matter? Well, that depends on how important it is to you that more than 100,000 gather at this track for one day each May, shining a national spotlight on the city.

Economically, it probably would not be much of a hit.

Dennis Coates, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has looked at the impact of events like the Super Bowl on their host cities.

"Something on the order of magnitude of the Preakness I don't think would be likely to have much of an effect," he says, noting that it would be mainly those directly involved -- vendors at the track, local businesses nearby -- that would take a hit.

"But spreading it out over the whole city, not much," Coates says.

Though some studies have found that the Preakness pumps $60 million into the local economy, Coates and others point out that the vast majority of the money spent at the race and related events comes from the pockets of Maryland residents. If they didn't spend it there, they would spend it somewhere else in the area. So it would have the same economic impact.

The new revenue generated by attracting people from outside the state has to be balanced against the costs associated with the event -- increased police and other public services.

But culturally, it could be a blow to the city to lose this bit of national, even international, prestige. Exactly what that is worth, the city and state need to determine, as they decide how much to subsidize what is, in essence, a declining industry.

Even its advocates admit that horse racing is not what it once was. Partly, that is simply a matter of a changing culture. Residents of an increasingly urbanized country do not have the same relationship with horses that Americans of previous generations did. They feel more empathy for NASCAR drivers than Preakness jockeys.

And the sport has done little to keep up with the times. Baseball and football learned decades ago that they could attract more people playing at night under the lights. But not thoroughbred racing.

In Maryland, the tracks haven't built all the off-track betting parlors that regulations allow and have not pushed for more imaginative ways of getting their product before the public.

Most important is that for the first century of its existence, Pimlico and its fellow tracks had a virtual monopoly on the legalized form of one of the most attractive and pervasive types of human enter- tainment -- gambling. Unless you were in Las Vegas, if you wanted to legally place a bet, you went to the track. It is not surprising that the money rolled in.

So, the real problem facing horse racing is the one that has confronted many of what once were America's most established industries -- deregulation.

For legalized gambling, that started three decades ago with state lotteries and Atlantic City, N.J. Weekly drawings became daily games, then multi-state mega-jackpots. Scratch-offs came to the convenience store, attracting the gambler's dollar. Riverboat gambling, floating casinos and slot machines -- once thought of as sinful pastimes that were banished from genteel society -- started to become a standard part of the American entertainment landscape.

This means that horse racing is like Pan Am coming to terms with Southwest, or the Big Three broadcast networks entering a world with cable television, or Ma Bell facing all these upstarts offering long distance service.

It has to adapt or die. The economic structure of the sport -- from the lavish farms to the stud fees to the purses -- was based on having a monopoly that no longer exists.

Some never make it to the other side of deregulation -- Pan Am, for example. Others make it in a very altered form: the Big Three TV networks no longer tower over the medium and are now subsidiaries of much larger corporations.

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