Maryland Racing Deserves Better Than This

In the horse racing industry, there’s no need for fiction, because the reality is so outrageous and bizarre. All you have to do is cover the events as they happen—a good fiction writer couldn’t make up some of this stuff.

Maryland racing has been a head-scratcher for years. Economic issues and their impact on the business is one thing; destruction of an industry through gaffes, political missteps, and shortsightedness is another.

So how does it come to be that a still-viable racing and breeding state is left with the prospect of having no racing in 2011? You can fill in the blanks with the reasons of your choice, and there are many. Bottom line: It just shouldn’t be this way.

Rather than going through the litany of mistakes—the majority owner’s decision not to pay a license fee with the slots application for Laurel Park is just one, for instance—let’s look at the positives in Maryland. There are positives, believe it or not, and they offer proof that everything should be done to ensure racing continues. And we won't even get into the historical preservation, green space and horse farms, and economic development aspects.

When the slots squeeze from Delaware and West Virginia began in the late 1990s, Maryland racing began feeling the pinch. Yes, racetracks, horsemen, and breeders began lobbying for slots, but there has been a decade-long effort to keep horse racing afloat through its own means.

Horsemen have gone along with systematic cuts in racing dates and the elimination of a once-proud stakes schedule to maintain some semblance of a year-round circuit. Maryland horsemen and tracks were among the first to see the value in regional cooperation when they created a circuit with Colonial Downs in Virginia; it remains in place today.

Maryland has three facilities—Laurel, Pimlico Race Course, and the Bowie Training Center—that have long gotten high marks for their racing surfaces. Horsemen say Laurel is a great place to train and race horses, certainly one that should be protected.

In an interview with Jason Shandler, trainer Charles Assimakopoulos said: “It’s a shame because Laurel is one of the nicest places to race. The people here are great; they bend over backwards for you.”

Other trainers say similar things. How often do you hear that stuff in this business?

Pimlico often is characterized as a dump—improvements are needed; personally, I love the old joint and its atmosphere—but it does just fine hosting a Triple Crown event each year. Even if you take away the infield space, Pimlico probably could comfortably host a Breeders’ Cup, something that has no shot of happening until Maryland racing gets its collective bleep together.

Maryland has an OTB network that’s under-utilized but surely could be expanded. I’ve often wondered why the Maryland Jockey Club hasn’t done more in this department.

What about Bowie? It generates no revenue to speak of, so if you’re going to keep the property, why not build a small, nice-weather grandstand with a year-round OTB parlor where the old grandstand once stood and hold a short fair meet or two there to offer racing opportunities and other events? Think outside the box.

Consolidation of racing in Maryland was done to save money, and that’s understandable, but if you haven’t noticed, it has gotten rather boring. Is there a reason the state doesn’t do something to spruce up Timonium and make the meet special again? Timonium is different, a great place to introduce people to racing, and, like all Maryland tracks, is in a great location with people-drawing power.

Racing shutdowns in Maryland aren’t unprecedented. Look at how the harness industry slaughtered a one-time cash cow. Rosecroft Raceway near the lucrative Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia markets, is bankrupt, hasn’t held live racing for more than a year, and no longer provides the MJC with a solid OTB outlet. Totally unacceptable.

As for slots, legislative changes are needed. It’s fairly well established Maryland residents figured racetracks would get slots; only one, a harness track on the Eastern Shore, did. Maybe lawmakers will get involved and devise a comprehensive plan that gives racing the capital-improvement money it needs to make the necessary improvements, not only increase purses.

The fear, of course, is that dysfunction and greed will continue. It’s a safe bet there will be Thoroughbred racing in Maryland next year. Still unanswered, however: How serious is the Maryland Jockey Club in developing a plan—not status quo, but something vibrant and different—moving forward?

It doesn’t require a fiction writer to figure it out.



Leave a Comment:

Mary P

I've often wondered why the smaller tracks aren't doing more for the fans. How about having a horse show in the infield, or a band, something to entertain, something to expand horses overall. Do you know how many horse show people watch racing??? Not many, and yet it's a pool of potential fans that's untapped. Oh well, they need promoters that think outside the box, they need management and officials that think past their pockets. Scheez folks, you have to rest the cash cow sometimes. She can't always be producing milk.

03 Dec 2010 12:52 PM

Observations from the past...I know this will date me but so what. I trained in the Maryland area in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Would you like to guess what tracks were the most fun and had the most fan interaction to include families with children? The fair circuit when Marlboro, Hagarstown, and so on ran. There were other activities to draw the younger crowd other than racing, and everyone seemed to have fun.

One other thing; it was difficult to get your horses in as so many were available to run I rarely saw a short field and entering a horse for "star only" was common.

Things have changed and I don't think for the better. The growth of mega stables has not been a positive with fans, in particular with new /potential fans who can't figure out one person can train 50 or 60 or more horses (we all know they can't).

Mary P offers several good points regarding added entertainment and, more importantly, about show horse people not having any intetest in racing. I was recently at a gathering and overheard a senior woman make a comment that they were going to Warrenton, Va., the following day to watch steeplechase racing...the class of racing in her opinion.

My only out-of-the-box suggestion to help racing is to get the entire horse industry behind it and for it to get behind the other aspects of the industry. Combine flat and steeplechase races, offer pony rides and horse shows at tracks while racing is in progress. Think, cooperate, be creative and stop acting like a bunch of political hacks.

The racing industry won't survive much longer if big changes in attitude and function are not undertaken soon.

03 Dec 2010 3:00 PM
Bill Daly

I've lived in Maryland for almost 40 years and have attended the races on weekly basis just as long. I think things started to go south when the Maryland Jockey Club, under the leadership of Joe and Karen De Francis, exhausted the patience of the Maryland legislature.

Every year they would show up at Annapolis - hat in hand - pleading for funds to use for capital improvements - promising all sorts of magnificent things. Unfortunately, there was very little to show for all of their promises, and the legislators got fed up.

Gov. Glendening was going to help them get slots, but then at the worst possible time it was announced that the De Francis family had made illegal campaign contributions to Glendening. After that, support from Glendening evaporated.

To compound problems, the De Francis family backed the wrong horse in the next gubernatorial election. Backing a Republican for governor in Maryland does one no favors with the historically Democrat-controlled legislature. Republican Gov. Ehrlich tried to get slots, but the legislature blocked his every effort during his administration. Politics as usual in Maryland.

Then along came Magna and Frank Stronach, who sounded a lot like Karen and Joe De Francis. Frank has promised a lot of things and delivered on few. With this kind of history of unproductive track leadership and a legislature sick to death of broken promises from the MJC, it isn't surprising racing has declined in Maryland to this extent.

It is truly ironic all of this is happening just as Kevin Plank is in the process of resurrecting Sagamore Farm. I wish him well. I just wonder about his timing.

03 Dec 2010 3:31 PM
Harold B. Gross

I raced a stable of nice horses in Maryland ( Laurel & Pimlico) about 10 to 12 years ago .I also raced at Timonium and was tied for leading trainer then.

At the time I suggested to Timonium management about an idea to race during the summer and have night racing which  would not compete with Laurel day racing. All the merchents on York Rd. thought this was an excellent idea, however Timonium management was reluctant to compete.

I visited some of the other 1/2 milers and thought it a good idea to revive racing at these facilities.

03 Dec 2010 4:57 PM
Jimmy T

Racing in Maryland could have been great over the last several years. There are many factors that have led to the downslide of quality racing in Maryland. Michael Bush, the Democratic leader in Annapolis, was one main reason years back when Erlich wanted slots. Maryland missed the bus on generating revenue for the state and improving the industry. Look at Charles Town, which is now booming with revenue. The political leaders in the state screwed up badly. They let all the citizens in Maryland go entertain themselves in surrounding states, and now Maryland is unlikely to ever catch up. WV and PA already have table games while Maryland is barely started on slots. The state leaders in MD now need to give some help to the industry that they assisted in destroying. Oh, that's right, they are broke so they will likely raise the MD residents' taxes instead. The people would have come and supported the industry in MD, however, you have to deliver a desirable experience to your customers. This does involve more than just horse racing in today's world. Entertainment in a variety of different methods is what customers are looking for. Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland have a much better idea of what people want at a racetrack. Maryland missed the boat and I hope that they can rebound and make things right. Over the last 10-12 years little to no progress has been made. Take a look at Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland and the states that have postive results in the industry. At least that will lead Maryland in the right direction. Other than the Preakness, Maryland is no longer a recognized as a racing state unfortunately. That is the real tragedy that almost everyone already recognizes and saw coming.

03 Dec 2010 5:03 PM

are you serious? bowie is a dump. go look at the stalls and track, where the old grandstand was. it looks like iraq blowed up, get a grip, maryland needs purse money. bottom line. i left 3 years ago and am glad. trainers fees don't change so it made no sense to stay there and lose money


03 Dec 2010 5:04 PM
Harry B.

All MJC owners past and present have no interest in helping Maryland racing prosper to great heights it reached in the 70s and 80s. There is only one word to describe the present owners: GREED. Magna and Penn National have done nothing to promote the history of Maryland racing and have done nothing to try and entice fans to come to Laurel or Pimlico. Marketing is non-existent--just open the doors and who comes, fine; otherwise, WHO CARES? Enough is enough to the 3rd largest industry in the state. It is obvious that Magna and Penn National are here to close Maryland racing and it's time for the state to declare eminent domain and take over the day-to-day operation of Maryland racing. Who cares if 12,000 jobs are lost??? Obviously Magna and Penn National don't care. Sad but true.

03 Dec 2010 5:22 PM


03 Dec 2010 5:48 PM

I agree a lot with Pboo. Having lived in Maryland 62 yrs, near to Laurel and the former Freestate (now long gone) harness tracks and with a long history with Bowie, things are a mess but I think now it is money-big money. The tracks, Laurel, Pimlico, and Bowie sit on some of the most expensive land in Maryland, and I honestly think the state is salivating on the thought of eminent domain takeover to seize, prop, and then sell to developers. Developers have been the kings in Maryland for a long time. And I believe they are working under the table to bring this about. If so racing will be gone soon forever.

03 Dec 2010 6:03 PM

From the writer: The comments on this serious issue are appreciated. I've learned something. ... And to darlene, thanks for mentioning Freestate Raceway. ... Was still doing well when it closed. Gee, why did that happen? I've driven by the property recently--grocery store and care dealership. Hmmmm.

03 Dec 2010 6:12 PM


03 Dec 2010 6:50 PM


03 Dec 2010 7:10 PM
Robin from Maryland

It's a sad fact, Maryland racing is drying up and fast. While it's true that getting slots years ago would have helped - now it's too late.  Horsemen are leaving, and our purses couldn't pay any bills.  When the Preakness leaves, all we're gonna say is I told you so.  I wish Kevin Plank all the best in rehabing Sagamore, one of the best old farms in the area.  In a few years to come - Marylanders will get what they want: No racing, and Jim M. who so actively fought for Maryland Million Day will be doing backflips in his grave.  Such a shame.

03 Dec 2010 9:21 PM

Mr. LaMarra -

My experience at the Timonium Fair was wonderful. It was a short-but-sweet meet that serves as a centerpiece of the Maryland State Fair.

An intrepid photographer chomped on funnel cakes before taking these pics here:

A similar festive atmosphere would be created in Maryland if they conducted 50 day meets at Laurel and 50 at Pimlico.

Only in Maryland can you have slots subsidies and make it problematic by clamoring for 146 live racing cards. The state has a chance to become nationally relevant again. Don't blow it.

04 Dec 2010 1:43 AM

"Racing shutdowns in Maryland aren’t unprecedented. Look at how the harness industry slaughtered a one-time cash cow. Rosecroft Raceway near the lucrative Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia markets, is bankrupt, hasn’t held live racing for more than a year, and no longer provides the MJC with a solid OTB outlet. Totally unacceptable."

It is typical of the Thoroughbreds to blame Harness people for their problems. It is the same people that botched the slots application, they also drew up a simulcast agreement that hurt both sides. The MJC would not re-negotiate a simulcast agreement and now BOTH tracks are dead. I heard one MRC say, "A deal's a deal."

No difference that the economy collapsed and surrounding states with racinos were taking our business. I find it quite ironic that the amount of money that Laurel is losing, between $4-7 million a year, is just about what the simulcast agreement was, $6 million/year from Rosecroft.  (What other track in the US takes or wants such a high figure for a simulcast agreement? The Interstate Horse Racing Act was to help the horseman...not destroy other horseman.)

GREED  and rrrogance by the MD THB Association has killed MD racing.  

04 Dec 2010 6:53 AM
No Boy

Can you imagine a million dollar ontrack handle at Timonium? Well--it happened several times in the late '60s and it was mighty exciting!!! Timonium used to be the most friendly place to race and it was especially fun to win there - lots of people got in the picture.

When the Manfuso-De Francis team took over racing in the early '80s everyone was excited and hopeful for the future of racing - they were hands-on and everything was so much better and all went well until the death of Frank De Francis. It has been a downhill slide since then.

It seems that a foreigner came and, having no ties to the state or the history of racing, just proceeded to suck all the juice out of racing while adding to his own breeding and racing operations. It seems now that all he wants is the real estate after all-never mind the racing.

04 Dec 2010 7:33 AM


04 Dec 2010 8:29 AM

One thing I noticed in the article is that everyone is waiting on the state to do something. Remember less government involvement the better. That's where the horsemen of Maryland need to start. Do it yourselves, stop leaning on the state. Fight for a reduction of regulations. And don't go crying to the state during hard times. It's time for this country to grow up and take care of themselves.

04 Dec 2010 9:56 AM

All of racing could take a lesson from steeplechasing. That sport relies on the entertainment dollar rather than the gambling dollar and as a result, has large crowds of young people and families that attend their races. Crowds of 25,000 to upwards of 50,000 people are not uncommon. People have an interest in racing if the product is presented in a fun-filled manner and yes, they will bet -maybe not as much as the hard core gambler. Make a day at the races a pleasant experience and the fan base will start to increase.

04 Dec 2010 10:09 AM

One thing I noticed in the article is that everyone is waiting on the state to do something. Remember less government involvement the better. That's where the horsemen of Maryland need to start. Do it yourselves, stop leaning on the state. Fight for a reduction of regulations. And don't go crying to the state during hard times. It's time for this country to grow up and take care of themselves.

[quote from Pasadena]

Absolutely right! I don't think that slots are the panacea for racing's ills and never did. Plus I don't think any pro or college sport should be getting government subsidies. Just my opinion.

And for whatever it's worth, people in the DC area counties don't give a rat's ass about racing. They just don't--I don't know why. The Montgomery County delegates that head off to Annapolis every spring usually make it a horse racing vs. money issue du jour, usually education.

Tis what it tis.

05 Dec 2010 12:53 PM

you people in maryland need to start planing your trips up here to philly park if you want to see winter racing, i never understood why md would allow the sale of maryland tracks to magna and penn nat. who have more to gain by closing the md tracks. PA will RULE the easten seabord we already put NJ out of the biz and next is MD and NY, i love racing in maryland but its time to say the game is over down there

05 Dec 2010 8:07 PM
needler in Virginia

Here's one of my dumb questions, for which there probably are no answers: If steeplechasing is so popular in this part of the world........I'm in the center of the Shenandoah Valley with easy access to both the Maryland and Richmond tracks AND hunt country, as well....... why not take advantage of it? Days of 'chasing at the track aren't unheard of. I ALWAYS planned to be at Saratoga on Thursdays for the steeplechases. And, yes, I know you can't turn your turf course into a permanent 'chasing track but why not try to find a way of offering 'chasing days? In this particular part of the world, where hunting and steeplechasing are as much a tradition as crooked politicians, get off thy collective butts and TRY SOMETHING NEW! Clearly, the connection between humans and horses is real and important. Find a way to make that connection work for racing again. Try this exercise: take Michael Vick and Zenyatta, stand 'em side by side.... now, which one gives YOU the warm fuzzies??? Zenyatta knew how to do it and she trained her owners and trainer to enhance what she had to offer. She did a fairly good job at it, I might add. While there won't be any more Zenyattas for a while (or EVER), the crowds that gathered just to watch her graze should be telling us something.

My heart will be broken if racing goes the way of the Dodo; I love flat racing, steeplechasing, harness racing, even the Weenie Dog races for charity, but somehow racing seems to have disconnected from what should be a GROWING fan base. Tradition is fine and I love that, too. Sometimes, though, old traditions need to be updated to fit a new century. We're ten years into this one and racing seems to be ignoring the clock, or seeking slot machines to solve the problems. "But we've ALWAYS done it that way" won't work anymore, folks. Somehow the magic, except in small spots, has been lost and if we can't get it back, updated and thrilling, there won't be any more Preaknesses and I'm damned if I can live with that.

I have no real answers except to look to other industries that flagged and then recovered. Surely one person has a witless, brainless, ridiculous idea that would work............ I won't be the one to say it's not worth a try. I was born the year Assault won the Triple Crown, so I've been around for him, Citation, Secretariat, Slew and Affirmed. The thought that any of those three particular races might cease to exist in my lifetime is NOT ACCEPTABLE. Racing must be willing to work at this and not let it slide; legislators MUST be made to appreciate the history AND the dollar opportunities racing has to offer.....not only in jobs, but in handle and percentages. Politicians WILL get "handle" and percentages (maybe not the jobs part so much).

Sorry for the rant; I HATE seeing the Maryland countryside disappear one condo at a time. I HATE seeing tracks unable to fill races. I HATE seeing the smaller tracks disappear into parking lots. I HATE that the tradition of racing is fading, for lack of care, like a bad photo. Now that Zenyatta is on her flight to anonymity, Rachel has disappeared into the herd at Stonestreet, and legislators can't seem to remember how to think, I'm gonna go off and be sad for what once was and still might be again.

Cheers, I guess, and safe trips.

06 Dec 2010 10:03 AM
Criminal Type

I was born in Maryland and have lived here all my life. My grandfather took me to see Native Dancer at Sagamore, Kelso at Laurel and I was in the grandstand when Secretariat won the Preakness. I screamed my head off sitting on top of a fence in the infield when Spectacular Bid thundered down the homestretch.

To think that the days of racing at our HISTORIC tracks are almost over is heartbreaking to me and should be to anyone who loves this sport. I for one am sick unto death of these freaking politicos' attaching other things to measures that might help racing. First the De Francis's, then Stronach. I despise this guy.

The "deal" that was presented to the Maryland horsemen a couple weeks ago was laughable. To go from nearly 200 calender days of racing to 47 days is beyond ridiculous. Do they really think that the trainers, their employees and even the horse can survive on this? That's just plain NUTS.

All the money people want more money, It matters not one little bit if others can put food on the table and in the buckets. If Frank Stronach wants to help Maryland racing, maybe he should loosen up his wallet. After all, he created a lot of this mess when they didn't put up the application fee ($28 million) when they submitted the application for slots at Laurel.

This whole deal makes me very angry and the people involved in the fleecing of Maryland horsemen should be very ashamed.

06 Dec 2010 2:54 PM
Criminal Type

Mr Pro, This is about saving maryland racing and one of the most historic races in the sport, a triple crown event. Get a grip. As far as New Jersey racing goes, I believe Monmouth would argue your opinion that racing is dead there. Obviously you are one of those people who don't give a rat's ass about history or horsemen. Racing does not need people who think like you, they need people who have a much deeper appreciation of the sport and the people who depend on it for their living.

06 Dec 2010 9:33 PM


07 Dec 2010 6:14 AM

I hope you guys will leave this post up and not treat it as a cheap shot at MJC, a place I love to watch horses race. It says a lot about why MJC is in trouble.

It would be a travesty to lose Maryland racing. The thought of the Preakness at some other track would be like holding the Super Bowl in Ecuador.

I did a lot of work for the Maryland tracks at a hugely (50%) discounted rate for 7 years, but on Preakness day they kept bringing in a guy from Chicago to replace me. This track is always crying the blues about money, yet on Preakness day they would spend an additional $2,000 to bring this guy in, even though I live "right down the block."

When I complained, and after the guy's health deteriorated to the point he could not come for the Preakness anymore, Pimlico in their infinate wisdom chose to spend another $1,000 on a guy who quit after just 1 year and now they spend $1,500 every year on the replacement when they could have me for 1/3 of the price.

Oh, I forgot to mention why I was snubbed. Because I told the truth while I was complaining. I guess they couldn't handle the truth.


07 Dec 2010 8:52 AM

Tom, I have to ask a question but it's not about Maryland.  Kentucky is known as the TB center of the world in horse racing.  It's one of their biggest industries. But the politicians in KY seem incapable of offering any assistance to those farms struggling through the recent economic woes, and incapable of promoting the sport.  At the same time, KYoffers millions to a religious group trying to build a Noah's Ark theme park????? They say it will bring new jobs. Hey, what about trying to keep the jobs already in jeopardy? What about separation of Church and State? What's going on? Can you do a blog about this situation? It certainly seems desperate and very, very tacky, not to mention it's just plain wrong.

08 Dec 2010 10:36 AM

Criminal Type, if you read my post you will see that i said i love md racing, and no matter what we come up with on this posting board magna and penn will still do what they want to do, besides you can't save somthing that's already gone, and as far as monmouth goes they won't run next year.

09 Dec 2010 1:07 PM
JE-N-KY Racing Stable

By the way this is no disrespect to MR. ST---. He is a business man. You would think if you don't want to take a step to take MD racing over as opposed to ending it change the stupid government policies. A lot of people will be wondering what you were thinking about when you didn't let the bankrupcy happen with viable people that wanted to invest into the track. Mr. Rickman took a small track with limited slots and much trouble to support its opening and existenc. It still paid bills. Wonder how he still made a profit???? And paid out off the slots!  Interesting. Just a thought. ...

15 Dec 2011 3:55 AM

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