Cut Md. racing to save it

November 15, 2010|By Michael T. Serio

Growing up I remember hearing stories of how great thoroughbred racing in Maryland was back in its heyday. My grandfather was a trainer, and he would tell me how the Timonium fair was more than pit beef, butter corn and rides; it held great stakes races up until the 1970s. How Triple Crown winner Citation came to Maryland to race in the Chesapeake Stakes, losing to a local horse named Saggy. Tracks were found from Bowie to Cumberland, from Marlboro to Havre de Grace, and attendance, as well as excitement, were both high.

Champion horses were bred all over Maryland. Kentucky Derby winners were the norm. Timonium would hold horse sales throughout the year, and people would come from all over the country to purchase horses here in Maryland. The industry provided thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue to the state. Thoroughbred racing use to mean something to the people of Maryland, and to people around the country.

Today Maryland racing is laughed at by the thoroughbred industry. Even Maryland's best horses are scarcely found at top race tracks around the country. Great horses no longer come from Maryland. Track attendance is dismal. And why not, what are you going to see? Even when people go to Laurel, most are there to watch simulcast races from other tracks that have the great horses.

I supported and continue to support slots. I was hoping that the Maryland Jockey Club and Laurel Park could have positioned Maryland racing for success, but that train has left the station. Slots have been passed for the mall. The Maryland Jockey Club has threatened to cut Maryland racing. I have one thing to say about that: good.

Monmouth Park Race Track in New Jersey cut its race days this year and increased the amount of purses to $1 million a day. The result was an increase in horses coming to the track, which in turn greatly increased attendance. Champion horses — including the winners of the Preakness and Kentucky Derby — followed the money to New Jersey. Rachael Alexandra, last year's Horse of the Year winner, graced New Jersey residents with a glimpse of what a racing legend looks like.

The problem with money coming in from slots is that it doesn't go to the track, it goes to the purses being offered at the tracks. So the track cannot use it to make improvements. Most of the tracks have televisions older than me. The tracks need to be invested in and restored. How can we do that? Increase attendance, which increases the handle that tracks take in from betting. So let's use the model that Monmouth Park has created. Cut Maryland racing days to 30 days before the Preakness and 30 days after the Preakness. Increase the purses to $1 million a day. Bring the champions back to Maryland, and the people will follow.

Anyone who doesn't believe that horse racing can thrive today should have driven the 600 miles to Louisville, Ky., with me last weekend for the Breeders Cup Championship.

Kentucky is the center of the universe as far as thoroughbred racing is concerned. Their farms produce some of the best horses in the world. They create a tremendous number of jobs and bring in millions of dollars of state tax revenue. At the Keeneland horse sale this week they sold 183 horses for $38.9 million dollars. I bet some people in Annapolis would like to have some of the sales tax on that!

The attendance at Churchill Downs during the Breeders Cup this weekend was 114,353 over the two days. Those are people renting hotel rooms, buying food, touring the area.

The Breeders Cup moves from race track to race track every year. This year and next year it is at Churchill Downs. Kentucky is trying to give them tax benefits to keep this race there every year. Why do we not try and bring this event to Baltimore? How many hundreds of millions of dollars would this bring to our economy, state tax revenue, and racing industry?

If we cut race days, boost purses, improve the quality of races and increase attendance, we can fix up Pimlico and Laurel and bring Maryland racing into the 21st Century. With some vision — and perhaps some help from Annapolis — we can lure the Breeders Cup and all the tourism dollars that go with it to Baltimore.

We need to do something, and having a lot of racing days with small purses is not going to bring anyone out for a day at the track. We have to do something to save Maryland racing. We have seen what happened in New Jersey and can use their blueprint to bring Maryland back to the forefront of thoroughbred horse racing. Maybe one day we will see a Kentucky Derby winner from Maryland again. But it will not happen with the same failed plans.

Michael T. Serio is a high school teacher from Baltimore County. His e-mail is mserio@bcps.org.

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