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.”

Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
"Tommy Gun Chuckus" shots from both sides of his mouth and its the same ole BULL...
Walter More than 1 year ago
Slots/casinos are no friend to horse racing. Its been proven at many tracks. Look at Aqu, Mnr, CT, and Del, they give big money to slow horses. What is the point of that? Also, why would an owner keep five horses when he/she could make money with just one? Answer, they don't keep five because its cost prohibitive, hence you see the field sizes at slots fueled tracks are small. Then, the slots fueled tracks double dip by having high takeout on horse bets and gain high profits on casino revenues. Slots do help many owners/trainers but they do nothing for the horseplayer.
Raymond Hackinson More than 1 year ago
Years ago, all I heard was how races were fixed with jockeys holding a horse back,etc. Now, with so many cameras, I wonder how a race could be manipulated on the track. In the past, in NY alone we had Barrera, Ferriola, etc who tried everything to win a cheap race. I don't see Scott Lake or Dane Kobiskie race their mounts in NY but they have a large winning percentage in Maryland. Its obvious they are banned from NYRA tracks If Maryland stopped them from racing, maybe people would go back to racing As far as the foal crop, the investment criteria of time and uncertainty, no matter what the purse structure, is just not prudent for all but the 'old school' Probably the horse farms are now strip malls and condominiums; but welcome in Maryland
Mark D More than 1 year ago
The most shocking number to me was the 450 MD Breds born this year vs 2,200 per year in the early 90's. Such a shame.
Jack H More than 1 year ago
First and foremost why the H_ _ L would you simulcast races from other countries where the freakin race call is in Spanish. NO quality past performances. The idea is to keep people in the game so you churn the money and take your cut. Not to have them go broke after a few races and leave. When is enough enough. Pick 10 tracks to simulcast and focus on your onsite customers.
. More than 1 year ago
Let's cut the bull. The occasional small field size during the week is not a problem. on weekends well yes that could be a problem. The problem with Horse racing , why it's declining is most people believe they cheat, this is what I hear all the time. Would you play blackjack if the dealer was known or rumored to cheat? If they severely punished the cheaters they catch , basically kick them out of the game a lot more people would play horses. It won't happen overnight
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
Spot on...ty...
. More than 1 year ago
Why did Maryland build a casino near Laurel park instead of placing it in Laurel park like Delaware Park? Answer: The state does not want Horse racing, they only want the Preakness. Take iit from there. I own property in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Do not trust Maryland, if they were not located next to Wash DC , receiving that Federal money they would be a dump. Maryland is a greedy money grubbing state. The only people who can survive here and those on welfare and wealthy people. The average Joe gets taxed to death, faces brutal traffic and high prices.
. More than 1 year ago
Example: brought a new car, I went to the dealer in Maryland shopped around, then I drove back to Pennsylvania and brought the same car for $3,000 less.
Juan DE La Cruz More than 1 year ago
It's like a title of a song - "Killing me softyly" - that's what is happening in horse racing industry in the United States. Racetracks keep increasing their take-outs too and sooner or later there will be no more bettor playing.
1971 Whippet More than 1 year ago
Just an FYI to all those who see casino dollars as the salvation of the sport: Foxwoods (casino, not the stable) is trimming the hours that it's Rainmaker casino will be open. It's just a part of the death knell that will sound for both CT casinos, probably the two most wildly successful casinos in the world. Now, the decline has begun. Stand on your own, or be gone (eventually).
michael More than 1 year ago
Chukas has said same thing for three years. Stronach seems to not want to fix Pim. Hed rather put up chandeliers in santa anita