Updated on 09/17/2011 5:42PM

Maryland slip sliding away

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The Maryland Million has annually been an occasion for breeders, owners, and trainers to celebrate the virtues of the state's horse industry. And for most of the event's 19-year history there has been plenty to celebrate.

The Thoroughbred breeding industry in Maryland is exemplary, the envy of all its neighbors. Because of the strong homegrown horse population, Laurel and Pimlico have generally been able to offer good-quality racing, despite the tough competitive environment in which they operate. Around the country, Maryland racing has been viewed as a major-league product.

But as the Million is run at Pimlico on Saturday, gloom and pessimism pervade the sport. Since the legislature killed all of the bids to legalize slot machines in the state, while Pennsylvania approved slots for its tracks, the future of Maryland racing appears almost hopeless. Some trainers are looking to move their operations out of the state. Employees are worried about their jobs. Breeders are worried. Racing fans are disgruntled about the quality of the product.

I have been following the races in Maryland since the mid-1960's, and I have never seen the quality of racing lower than it has been at Pimlico in the last few months. The reason is simple: Purses in Maryland have fallen far behind those in neighboring states that receive an infusion of slot money. Without slots of its own, Maryland has no hope of catching up.

The gaps are particularly great in the claiming races that are the bread-and-butter products for a track such as Pimlico. In Maryland, a field of $10,000 claiming horses competes for a purse of $12,000. At Delaware, the same class runs for $18,000. At Monmouth, $19,000. At Charles Town in West Virginia - once a minor-league track - such horses run for a staggering $30,000. When Pennsylvania's slots are operational, purses at Philadelphia Park and Penn National will dwarf Maryland's, too. Why would a rational owner or trainer run a $10,000 horse at Pimlico or Laurel? He wouldn't - unless the horse was so weak in that category that he couldn't make the grade at Charles Town or elsewhere.

As a result, the claiming races in Maryland have attracted the cheapest of the cheap. Most of them have conditions such as "nonwinners of two [races] lifetime" that are designed for the dregs of the claiming ranks.

Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland tracks, grimly acknowledged the changes in the mid-Atlantic region. "Charles Town is becoming what Maryland was," he said. "And we're becoming Charles Town."

Raffetto used to put pressure on trainers stabled in Maryland to run their horses at their home track instead of shipping to other states. He argued that they had an obligation to support Maryland racing. Now he knows that argument sounds hollow. "How much can you beat up on [horsemen] to support our program," he asked, "when our own politicians won't support us?"

The quality of the racing product is almost certain to erode further. Maryland has been buoyed for years by solid support in the simulcasting marketplace. Out-of-state venues and their customers have long treated Maryland as a major-league product, giving it much more attention and respect than Delaware and Pennsylvania. But people who have had a good dose of Maryland racing lately can't view it as major-league much longer. If simulcast wagering declines, purses decline, and the quality of racing declines further. It's a vicious cycle and there is little hope of reversing it.

As a result, some Marylanders are bailing out. One prominent trainer, Tony Dutrow, has already moved horses to Philadelphia Park, and another, Dale Capuano, hopes to obtain stalls there. Others will leave, too. But one important segment of the Maryland racing community can't move. Maryland's breeders have immovable investments in land and farms, and they can't go anywhere.

They have made a huge economic commitment to the state and have produced an admirable product - as the horses entered in the today's Million races demonstrate. (There are more than 30 stakes winners among them.) But the fortunes of the breeders have always been closely tied to the health of racing in the state; if the racing is attractive, would-be owners will buy more horses.

"It's a shame to be penalized for staying here," said Mike Pons, who with his brother Josh runs Country Life Farm in Bel Air. "This has been a very stressful time for all the breeders."

But Pons believes that he and other Maryland breeders can continue to prosper by capitalizing on the growth in neighboring states and selling to owners who want to race in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. "My family survived the Great Depression and World War II," he said. "I think we're going to weather this."

But will Maryland racing weather the defeat of slots and the mounting regional competition? The one positive development is the rebuilding of the turf course at Laurel, which will allow the track next year to run as many as six grass races a day. "Turf is going to be our niche," said Raffetto.

Because grass races invariably attract large numbers of entrants, Laurel will be able to card races that draw full fields and become good betting vehicles even if the purses are modest and the horses cheap. It's the best available solution for the Maryland tracks' problems, but it is hardly an uplifting vision of the future for a state with such a grand racing tradition.

(c) 2004 The Washington Post