05/15/2014 9:29AM

Maryland purses up but field size, facilities cause for concern

Barbara D. Livingston
Both Pimlico (above) and Laurel Park are in need of capital improvements.

Maryland’s horsemen, breeders, and track officials all share the same opinion: racing in the state hasn’t been in such good shape for years.

Purses are way up due to subsidies from Maryland casinos, and the arrival in the next three years of two more casinos, one in downtown Baltimore, another in Prince George’s County, promises even more cash. Bonuses to owners and breeders have increased the average earnings per Maryland-bred starter to its highest point ever. Next year, the bonuses to owners will nearly double, with the potential for a Maryland owner-breeder to earn as much as 60 percent over the winning purse.

Plus, the state’s horsemen and the owner of its two Thoroughbred tracks, Pimlico and Laurel, have a 10-year agreement on racing dates that guarantees a nearly year-round racing schedule, giving horsemen a sense of stability in a state where the future of racing looked dismal just four years ago, when the tracks’ parent company, the Stronach Group, was mired in bankruptcy and had disastrously mishandled a bid to get slot machines.

“We look back three or four years, it seemed like the industry was imploding,” said

Alan Foreman, the general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a longtime advocate in the state for horsemen. “Now, there seems to be a real sense of optimism and a resurgence.”

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But for all that talk about a revitalization, there are still troubling issues in the state. While average daily handle on Maryland races inched up last year to $2.06 million, the figure is still down a third from the high water mark in 2006, when average daily handle was $3.3 million. And even though purses have jumped nearly 50 percent in the last two years, field size remains at fewer than eight horses per race – the figure actually dropped from 7.9 horses per race in 2012 to 7.7 horses per race last year, despite the big purse increases, according to the Jockey Club.

Breeders expect more Maryland-bred horses to be born this year and the next, but that will still probably mean only about 450 Maryland-bred registered foals, a far cry from the crops of the early 1990s, when Maryland produced about 2,200 foals annually.

And even track officials acknowledge that Laurel and Pimlico – especially Pimlico, site of the second leg of the Triple Crown, this Saturday’s Preakness Stakes – are in pressing need of fix-ups, if not a complete renovation.

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“Anyone who’s seen Pimlico is aware that it’s in need of serious improvement,” said Tom Chuckas, the president of the two tracks, which operate under the banner of the Maryland Jockey Club.

It’s unclear where that money will come from. A state law earmarks 2.5 percent of slot-machine revenues in the state to capital improvements at the tracks beginning this year, but the Stronach Group has to match every dollar spent to claim the funds. In 2012, with the benefit of using the capital-improvement fund to subsidize the tracks’ general operations – the first year of a two-year exemption on using the fund for improvements – the tracks still lost $3 million, according to the most recent financial statements on file with the Maryland Racing Commission.

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Chuckas said that the Maryland Jockey Club plans to announce soon how the money will be spent, but he said there are no specifics yet. Still, Chuckas indicated that the Pimlico grandstand will probably be targeted for some of the funds, saying the track “lacks serious fan amenities” such as sports bars and simulcasting facilities.

“From a fan’s perspective, that has to change,” Chuckas said.

Aside from improved facilities, another way to attract more money to Maryland racing would be to offer a better wagering product, but the two tracks, like all other tracks in the U.S., are struggling to push the average field size higher due to a dramatic decline in the national foal crop from 2010 to 2012. In fact, to maintain the national field size average, racing officials believe the total number of U.S. races needs to be cut by 25 percent by the end of 2015.

“The problem with field size is the problem everyone is facing,” Chuckas said. “There’s just not enough horses right now. It’s just a question of limited supply.”

Under the 10-year accord with horsemen, Pimlico and Laurel combined will offer 145 days of live racing from now into the foreseeable future. Foreman said that horsemen have no plans to cut racing dates, but that the group will be looking to work with other Mid-Atlantic jurisdictions, such as Delaware, on coordinated racing programs, in the hopes of reducing overlaps and pushing field size up at both tracks. Also, horsemen and track officials have also said that they will look at shifting some racing dates on the calendar, perhaps reducing winter racing dates in favor of summer dates, when the turf course at Laurel can be used.

Whether Pimlico and Laurel can attract more wagering and attention from the local fan base may have a significant impact on the state racing industry’s future, according to Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Breeders Association. While the slots subsidies have been effective in pushing up purses and financial awards to owners and breeders, the state racing industry will need more than just big purses to keep the subsidies flowing, Goodall said. It will need to demonstrate, by improving every aspect of the business, that it deserves an ample flow of money from casinos when other state programs are also in need of cash.

“It’s the foal crops, the stallions, the farms, the condition of the tracks, and how we are perceived,” she said. “You have to have all of those things to make it work, and it’s going to take awhile to get there.”