In the money, at last

August 22, 2006

Finally, some good news for Maryland horse racing. A trifecta of sorts.

On the sentimental front, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who shattered a hind leg in full view of a horrified Preakness crowd in May, is once again grazing on his own four feet. Earlier this summer, the smart money was on a speedy dispatch for the thoroughbred after he developed a severe case of laminitis in his good hind leg and most of the hoof was removed. But excellent care, deep-pocketed owners and a horse with amazing heart and grit have so far worked a miracle.

Enormous public interest in Barbaro's fate suggests there is a market for the family-friendly twilight racing that Laurel Park launched last week in a bid to attract a younger crowd tied up with work and school during regular daytime meets. Indeed, initial results have been encouraging: double the regular gate the first three days. Still less than 5,000, but hey, many of them actually appeared to be watching the live action instead of holed up inside the track, betting on races simulcast from elsewhere.

Perhaps the best news for Maryland's horse racing industry is that its often warring factions were able to come together this year to strike a compromise that ended the harness tracks' monopoly on night races. This is just an experiment, six days over two weeks of a shorty summer meet at Laurel. Major success probably depends on the thoroughbred track owners making a huge investment in lights. That would allow a later post time than 3:15 p.m. so fans could have dinner and make an evening of it through the fall.

But any step the racing industry takes to help itself builds support within the political community for doing more. Maryland racing needs bigger purses, bigger cards and bigger benefits for horses bred in the state to compete with its slots-playing neighbors. A healthy horse industry pays off for Marylanders in turn by preserving open space and the economic bonanza represented by the Preakness. That case has been hard to make, though, by a divided industry dominated by track owners who seemed interested only in increasing profits through slots.

If horse racing has a future, it's going to depend on children who come to the track with their folks and fall in love with the beauty, speed and thunder of those pounding hoofs.

As Barbaro is proving, healing has to come from within.

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