Despite problems, state has good racing season

May 07, 2006|By GEORGE R. ALTMAN | GEORGE R. ALTMAN,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

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

"I don't think that Maryland racing is dead and buried," said Catherine Robinson, a Pimlico trainer whose horses were restricted for 2 1/2 weeks as part of a 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 past five years, when last year's winter season posted the smallest overall handle for the period.

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

During that time, racing fields were of poorer quality and quantity than usual. Raffetto said Laurel lost many bettors.

But after the renovations were complete and the turf track opened, racing fields began to grow and bettors came back.

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

The success this year is largely a carryover from the previous fall, he said. Raffetto also said the equine herpes outbreak helped Laurel's winter racing in some ways because of restrictions on moving 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, he said.

Laurel's in-state betting handle fell 7.4 percent while 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 General Assembly's lack of action for the fourth consecutive year on legislation to allow slot machines at Maryland tracks.

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

Raffetto expects 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 fields, he said.

However, he added that without slots, Maryland's racing could face problems down the road, when the state has to compete with other states that allow slots.

While Robinson said slots would be a boon to the horse racing industry, she emphasized that said 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 agreed 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 the quarantine restrictions.

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

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