Maryland Racing on the Precipice

By Frank Vespe, That's Amore Stable 

Sometime Tuesday night - or perhaps Wednesday morning - our nation will have a new president-elect.

And Maryland racing will have a future.  Or not.

Maryland voters will decide Tuesday on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would allow slot machines in the state for the first time 40 years.  Under the complicated disbursement agreement crafted by the state legislature, Maryland racing stands to receive from the one-armed bandits tens of millions of dollars for purse enhancements and breeder bonuses and awards.

Of course, that's only if the amendment passes.  And a recent Zogby Interactive poll, which actually puts slots opponents slightly in the lead, suggests that passage is by no means guaranteed.

I don't get slots.  I don't see what's fun about them, or why anyone would want to spend their hard-earned cash sitting in front of a slot machine while hoping, in essence, to get hit by lightning.

But any clear-eyed analyst can tell you that Maryland racing, besieged on three borders by racing states with slots-enhanced purses, must have slots if it is to survive.  Our ability to compete with our nearby rivals depends on our having the same tools that they do - including slot machines.

Not so many years ago, flat racing in Delaware was nearly extinct; the West Virginia tracks were home to a steady stream of bottom claimers running for paltry purses; and Pennsylvania tracks were of no real consequence.  Maryland racing was the mid-Atlantic's big cheese.

These days, however, the cheese is getting a little rancid.

From my perspective, as an owner, the effects of our slots-less stature are apparent every time we run a race or pay a bill.  Over the last five years, the costs of keeping a horse in training have gone up significantly, as much as 20 to 25 percent.  Meanwhile, Maryland's purses have come down by nearly 10 percent over the same period.  It doesn't take a degree in math to see where this trend goes.

This week, That's Amore Stable will be running two horses out-of-state, one in Delaware and one in Pennsylvania.  Though we didn't send them elsewhere for better purses - both needed a race that wasn't coming around in Maryland - the purses in both cases are at least $2,000 more than the similar race at home.

A couple grand will buy a lot of hay and oats, and many races have even bigger spreads.  A first level allowance in Delaware, for example, pays $8,000 more than the same race in Maryland.

The result, of course, is economic migration.  Trainers and owners - and their horses - vote with their feet.  This past Friday, just 40 horses lined up for the six dirt races contested at Laurel - and nine of those were in a bottom-level maiden race, a condition for which there are always plenty of horses.  (Laurel's top-quality grass course continues to draw sizable fields).

And that is the leading indicator of the vicious circle in which Maryland racing finds itself: lower purses, smaller fields, reduced handle, lower purses...  Another trend whose end is easy to identify.

You could fill a War and Peace-sized volume with the mistakes that Maryland racing's leaders have made.  The same, of course, is true of racetracks all over the country.  And those are problems that, in the long run, will need to be fixed if the sport is to thrive.

But the immediate problem facing Maryland racing is not one of its own making.  It is, quite simply, that our nearby competitors have revenue sources - namely, slots - not available to us.  That allows them to increase purses and attract more and better horses.  We're fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.

The old curse - May you live in interesting times - certainly applies to Maryland horsemen, who live in fear that this (possibly) last, best opportunity to get the tools we need to be competitive may again go begging.  That we might wake up on Wednesday to discover that an increasingly untenable status quo is all we're going to have, that we have no real future at all.

Interesting times, indeed.

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