Track betting on twilight racing


On a warm summer's evening at Laurel Park, the Baker family - mother, father, 3-year-old and baby - sat on the benches by the horse track, watching the ninth race and cheering for their favorite (which came in dead last).

They were among the 4,400 who turned out yesterday for the first twilight racing meet in several years to be offered at a major Maryland thoroughbred track.

"If they do this again, we'll probably come out," Jon Baker, a third-year law student at the University of Maryland said of the experiment by the horse industry, aimed at drawing new fans. "It's just really hard to come out during the day.

The six days of summer twilight racing through next week are an attempt to lure a younger demographic to a sport that some in the industry fear has come to rely too heavily on older fans and retirees.

Some industry officials were pleased with yesterday's attendance, which they said was about 2,000 more than an average Wednesday.

"If you go to the dining room right now, you'd be amazed at how crowded it is," said Lou Raffetto, Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer. "If this is successful in 2006, we'll consider a twilight for Pimlico next spring."

It is an experiment that has been tried elsewhere in the country in a variety of ways, industry experts say.

Raffetto said that Laurel Park tried twilight racing in the mid-1990s with limited success.

But Robert Lawrence, equine studies professor at the University of Louisville, said, "If you attract younger people, then it is a positive. You get people coming in off work and they might miss two races, but they can still get there. ... And on a Friday night, they're not in a hurry to get home."

But he cautioned that offering a limited number of races would do little to rejuvenate the sport. And he also warned that "some fans are very traditional, and they don't like any change."

In Maryland, twilight racing has long been off the schedule for thoroughbred tracks under state law, the result of a long-standing split between the thoroughbred industry and the standardbred, or harness, racing industry, which traditionally raced at night.

But under an agreement this spring, both sides agreed to back legislation to lift that hurdle. The harness industry, which is allowed to race at night and give the thoroughbred industry permission to do so under current law, gave the green light for the Laurel evening-race experiment.

It is a limited tryout for now, with first posts at 3:30 p.m. three days this week and next. And there is no night racing - no lights as at the ballpark.

Twilight racing gets a warm response from some community leaders in the Laurel area, who view a healthy track as a good neighbor.

"We have been asking for years why they didn't have twilight racing," said Ray Smallwood, president of Maryland City Civic Association. "You have the whole entertainment package ... and all for a good price. The bottom line is good economic value for the track."

Tim Reyburn, president of the Russett Community Association, said there is little concern about disruption.

"It's not like the racetrack brings a humongous crowd. ... Even with this, there's no way it'll fill up the grandstand," he said. "Maybe a little more traffic at rush hour, but that should be expected."

The industry views later race times as a way to bring new blood into its aging fan base.

Tony DeMarco, service bureau director of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, a nonprofit group of racetracks, based in Elkton, said twilight and even nighttime racing has earned a permanent spot on the schedule at a number of tracks around the country, including Del Mar in San Diego and Arlington Park in Chicago.

"I don't think we can see an exodus towards that type of new schedule," DeMarco said. "But I'm sure most managers who run races in the day have entertained that notion."

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, has tried early post times on Fridays. In 2005, the track began offering races starting between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and about 7 p.m. on Fridays. Those races are run as part of "happy hour," with hotdogs and beer, each for $1.50.

"We decided this was appealing to the type of customer we would hope to appeal to," said Julie Koenig, vice president of communications for Churchill Downs. "It's attractive because if you're coming from working all week long [you get] happy hour and the added benefit of racing."

It is not clear whether there has been much crossover of casual Friday night fans into the track's regular races, which start at 1:15 p.m.

"We consider it a success in bringing out ... men and women, husbands and wives," Koenig said. "That's the type of customer we would like to have."

The Laurel experiment seemed to bring in some of the very patrons the industry is hoping to draw.

Paul Furlong of Baltimore, who works at the University of Maryland Medical School, said he attends races in Laurel during the fall - but only on weekends.

"If you work during the day and they only have races until 5 p.m., you come here after work only for the ninth race - and whoop-de-doo!" he said.

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