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.


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