Laurel Park beats odds in winter racing season

Horse racetrack overcomes hurdles of equine herpes scare to rake in its highest profits in nearly six years

May 05, 2006|By GEORGE R. ALTMAN | GEORGE R. ALTMAN,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

By conventional wisdom, this should have been a bad year for Maryland's ailing racing industry.

The equine herpes scare at the beginning of the year resulted in a voluntary quarantine at Pimlico Race Course and a flurry of state-imposed hold orders on barns.

Then the General Assembly, flush with cash from a budget surplus, ignored legislation to legalize slot machine gambling, often regarded as the best hope for saving the industry.

But against all odds, the 2006 winter season at Laurel Park was the most successful in nearly six years, easily outpacing the previous year.

"I don't think that Maryland racing is dead and buried," said Catherine Robinson, a Pimlico trainer whose horses were restricted for two and a half weeks as part of the trackwide quarantine. "It seems like everybody wants to wants to put a fork in [the industry] and say it's done, and I don't."

During this year's winter racing season, which lasted from Jan. 1 to April 15, overall betting handle increased by more than 25 percent, from $250 million to nearly $300 million, according to figures provided by Lou Raffetto, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

This is the largest total in the last five years, when just last year's winter season posted the smallest overall handle for the last five years.

Raffetto largely attributes the success of Laurel Park's winter season this year to its new turf racetrack. It was renovated from June 2004 to January 2005.

During this time, racing fields were of poorer quality and quantity than usual. Raffetto said Laurel lost many of its bettors as a result.

After the renovations were complete and the turf track opened, however, racing fields began to grow and bettors started coming back.

"During the fall [of 2005], we actually won back a lot of the fans that we used to have," Raffetto said.

The success earlier this year is largely a carry-over from the previous fall, he said. Raffetto also said the equine herpes outbreak helped Laurel's winter racing season in some ways because of restrictions on the transport of horses from state to state.

"As crazy as it sounds, from a purely business perspective, the positive result was our horses that were stabled in Maryland stayed in Maryland," which kept racing fields from shrinking, Raffetto said.

Laurel's in-state betting handle fell 7.4 percent for the period during which Pimlico was under quarantine, as compared with this year's whole winter season.

Still, the season was decisively more successful than the 2005 winter season, even during Pimlico's quarantine, when the 2006 daily handles were greater than the corresponding 2005 daily handle for all but two days.

Laurel's success also comes despite the Maryland General Assembly's lack of action on legislation to allow slot machines at Maryland racetracks for the fourth consecutive year.

A large budget surplus cooled legislators' enthusiasm for slot machine gambling, which was billed by supporters as the savior for Maryland's horse racing industry.

Raffetto anticipates that racing in Maryland will find success in the short term, thanks to the new turf track at Laurel and the shortened racing season. The reduction from 200 to 180 racing days will result in better quality fields, Raffetto said.

He added, however, that without slots, Maryland's racing industry could face problems down the road, when the state has to compete with tracks in other states that allow slot machine gambling.

While Robinson said slots would be a boon to the horse racing industry, she emphasized that Maryland racing can make it either way.

"I hope we get the slots, but I don't think we have to have the slots." Robinson said. "I think we've proven that."

Fellow Pimlico trainer Francis Campitelli disagreed. "I don't think you can generate enough money wagering in the old-fashioned ways ... to fuel the purses, to keep up with the costs of maintaining the horses," Campitelli said.

Both trainers did agree that the quarantine of Pimlico at the height of the equine herpes outbreak was frightening.

"It was a horrifying time, and, you know, you still think about it," Robinson said. "Every day, you'd come into your barn and ... somebody would say, `We've got a problem,' and my heart stopped."

Though nearly half of Robinson's horses were away from Pimlico for the winter season, she said 18 fell under Pimlico's quarantine restrictions.

Campitelli had more than a dozen of his horses at Pimlico during the quarantine, but he said most were in Florida for the winter.

"It was probably a good time [for the outbreak to happen], because people had their fewest number of horses in training, Campitelli said.

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