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DMA 7-22 Sports


November 8, 2010 3:00 AM

Maryland Horse Racing -- Get Real

Lookin at Lucky wins preak.jpgWatching the spectacle over the weekend that was the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in Louisville likely leaves many Marylanders chagrined over the seemingly moribund state of the Sport of Kngs here.

The big news out of Maryland last week was that citizens in one jurisdiction, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, decided by their vote that a potentially lucrative slots parlor be placed on the site of a popular regional mall rather than, as the horse industry wanted, at nearby Laurel Park Race Course.

Waking up in an apparent fog the day after the Nov. 2 election -- in which voters supported the ballot question with a 56 percent tally -- the president of the Maryland Jockey Club decried the result. The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park in Prince George's County, Maryland, and Baltimore's historic Pimlico Race Course, the home of the Preakness Stakes, put out the word for the umpteenth time that such a voters mandate would lead it to reduce racing operations in the state significantly, imperiling the more than 9,000 jobs and $600 million in revenue generated annually.

Over the slots vote, a venerable tradition of thoroughbred racing and breeding in Maryland would go down the drain, racing interests say. Specifically, the Maryland Jockey Club says it would need to eliminate live racing at Laurel Park and turn it into an off-track betting facility and then close a training center in nearby Bowie, Maryland. All that would be left in the state is a 40-day annual meet at Pimlico around Preakness time. Racing interests would have you believe that slots would have been the only way to save the industry.

We say bunk to such an argument.


Despite the splendor of the Preakness and a long tradition at its back, it is nonetheless difficult for many Marylanders to feel bad for the racing industry and those who have run it. There is a feeling that horsemen ran their own industry into the ground, pushing for slots over the years as a way of getting the public to bail it out.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the writer of this blog column would prefer no slots anywhere within the great state of Maryland, but given a choice would have favored the 4,750-machine parlor at Laurel Park instead of at the Arundel Mills shopping complex.)

Spending millions of dollars in TV advertising in a failed effort to sway the public and defeat the Arundel Mills slots ballot question didn't help their cause. If perception is reality, it seemed they were willing to spend whatever it took in a shameless money grab.

Yes, they will tell you that the state's racing industry was surviving OK until slot machines sprang up in neighboring Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania over recent years, prompting hordes of Maryland gamblers to cross state lines for their fix, thus rendering Maryland purses and breeding bonuses less competitive.

We in Maryland do love the beauty of horse racing as much as anyone on the planet. We know the history, horses, personalities. We watch the activity and excitement around the country -- at venues like Churchill -- and wish that same vibrancy was here.

But the Maryland racing scene seems to be convoluted mess of its own making. The De Francis family, Magna Entertainment Corp., MI Developments Inc. are all names that have been intertwined in recent years with the industry. One party selling assets to another, then bankruptcy filings, then buyout proposals. Supposedly, the De Francis family and other Maryland Jockey Club investors sold controlling interests in the Maryland tracks to Magna in 2002 in a $117 million deal. Wow, where is that money? In short, what it means is somebody is making money.

Had they gotten slots at Laurel Park you figure it would have meant good money after bad on the backs of the public.

Maybe what the racing industry needs to do is pool its resources, spend more its own money, leverage and put up its land holdings and, simply, do a better job of marketing the industry to the local citizenry.

For instance, what has the Maryland Jockey Club, an organization founded in 1743, done for the struggling community surrounding Pimlico in northwest Baltimore. The area surrounding the Pimilico track is where you hardly want to take an evening stroll. Have there been programs, initiatives, opportunities for melding that largely minority community into the fabric of the industry beyond having people with little resources coming to the track to place bets?

As for the Preakness, as much as we love it, it seems that the only piece of the profits going to the locals occurs when they rent out their front yards once a year for parking. Every year during Preakness time, folks pour in to take in the festivities only to caboose with their money after the day is over.

And what about those 9,000 jobs supposedly generated by the Maryland horse racing industry. Who do those jobs go to? Family members, brethren? Think about it.

Sorting out the mess of horse racing in Maryland is difficult at best. Like anything in business, perhaps market conditions have passed the industry by here. When that happens, as much as you would hate to lose a sport and industry, you move your money to something else.

But if the well heeled racing interests want to continue here, put your hands back in your pockets, give back to the communities where your tracks reside and starting writing checks rather than seeking a handout from the public. Give the locals a bigger piece of the action. Get them involved in the business -- even at your picturesque farms in Greenspring Valley, Howard County and Monkton. And how about fixing up Pimlico so it is not an eyesore to Baltimore's Park Heights community.

Clearly, Maryland voters sent you a message over the slots issue that since you broke the industry it is yours to repair.

  • DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog column about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at DMA722Sports@gmail.com

Photo Credit: Lookin At Lucky, 2010 Preakness Stakes winner, Getty Images

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