10/17/2001 11:00PM

Fewer races, more horses: Bravo, Maryland!

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When Laurel Park belatedly began its fall season Wednesday, racing fans saw two conspicuous changes. One was the repair of the much-publicized cracked windows in the grandstand, and the presence of unsightly scaffolding outside those windows (to protect customers in case one of the panes should shatter). Most horseplayers won't care; they don't expect much in the way of aesthetics from the Maryland tracks, and in the age of simulcasting few sit in the grandstand and look out over the racing strip, anyway.

But all bettors surely appreciated another change: The racing was competitive, with large fields all day. A total of 92 horses ran on the nine-race program, and every event had at least eight starters. Nor was there the torrent of late scratches that used to mar races here regularly. This was interesting, bettable Thoroughbred racing, and nobody has been able to say such a thing about the sport in Maryland for most of 2001.

But Maryland racing underwent an abrupt change when Pimlico opened last month to operate while the Laurel windows were being fixed. Good-sized fields became the rule rather than the exception. Last week 38 races were run in Baltimore, and only three had fields of six; none had five or fewer. The week before, only four races had fields of six or fewer.

This is a contrast to much of the fare offered at Laurel and Pimlico earlier in the year. On one all-too-typical Saturday in June, a total of 54 horses were entered on a 10-race program - a pathetic 5.4 per race. In an era where horseplayers have the choice of playing so so many simulcasts, neither Marylanders nor out-of-state viewers were interested in betting small fields, and business suffered.

What has changed this fall? Since Sept. 6, the Maryland tracks have been operating on a four-day-a-week schedule, from Wednesday through Saturday. The average number of races per week has been pared from roughly 47 to 40, and so the number of horses per race has increased. It would not have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that this was going to happen, and that such a cutback was a logical remedy for the problem of small fields.

And yet it is a remedy that has rarely been tried. Maybe it's too intelligent for the racing industry. Some tracks feel it is in their economic interest to run the maximum number of races, no matter how bad they are. In other places, such as Maryland, horsemen have fought any attempts to pare the racing schedule.

Horsemen here have always suspected that the tracks would like to become simulcast parlors and minimize the live sport, and thus have resisted any proposed reduction in the racing schedule. Moreover, they want the maximum number of opportunities to run their horses, and for the most part they don't care if too many races dilute the product. People who own and train horses are happy to run in five- and six-horse fields where they are almost certain to collect a share of the purse money.

When Lou Raffetto Jr. became the tracks' chief operating officer in January, his top priority was to improve the racing product. Because cutting back racing dates was off the table, he tried everything else. He changed the way the racing secretary's office schedules races and tightened the rules governing scratches. But his efforts produced no noticeable improvement; racing this summer was as bad as it has ever been in the state. Maryland fans virtually stopped betting on the local product. The future looked even bleaker when Annapolis discontinued a $10 million subsidy of purses at the state tracks. Yet this bad development had a silver lining.

Nobody wanted to slash purses across the board, which would have made Maryland even less competitive with neighboring states. So Raffetto and the horsemen hammered out an agreement that included a reduction in the stakes schedule, a reduction in the number of racing dates, and a four-day schedule running from the first week of September through the first week of November. Horsemen were adamant, though, that the five-day week be restored in November.

This was the first time horsemen had ever yielded to a significant cutback in the weekly racing schedule and the results have been unequivocal. After wagering declined because of the poor racing in the summer, business at Pimlico was healthy despite the general negative effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Although no direct comparisons were possible because Pimlico didn't operate last fall, Raffetto said, "The numbers were solid. We handled $3.1 million on the Maryland races on one ordinary Saturday. If the horses are there, people will bet."

This is a lesson that should be remembered in the future - particularly if the resumption of five-day-a-week racing produces small fields again. Racing cards likes the ones at Laurel Wednesday and Thursday will keep fans interested - and stimulate their betting. But if tracks run so many races that the quality suffers, wagering will decline and everybody will lose - fans, management, and horsemen.

(C) 2001, The Washington Post