05/11/2009 12:00AM

One czar's plan to save Maryland racing


WASHINGTON - As the Preakness is run for the 134th time Saturday, Maryland's politicians will be proclaiming their reverence for the state's great event and its Thoroughbred industry. Just last month, lawmakers were sporting "Save the Preakness" badges as they voted to give the state eminent domain rights to purchase the race and the Maryland racetracks.

Hearing these outpourings of support, people in Maryland who truly love horse racing may not know whether to laugh or cry.

The indifference of politicians in Annapolis - coupled with the ineffectiveness of the tracks' management - helped bring the sport to its present sorry state, with the quality of racing, the physical facilities and the fan base all deteriorating, and the owner of Pimlico and Laurel in bankruptcy. Annapolis's concern for horse racing comes about a decade too late.

If Maryland had legalized slot machines at the state's tracks while the sport was still reasonably healthy, the revenue might have boosted Pimlico and Laurel to the top tier of U.S. tracks. But the elected leaders of the state continually played politics with the slots issue and engaged in hypocritical posturing about the evils of gambling.

When a statewide referendum last fall finally approved slots, the promised help was too little, too late. (The slots are likely to go to a facility near the Arundel Mills shopping center rather than Laurel. Wherever they are, they will provide money for purses, but the state takes such a big cut from the revenue that there may be little or no profit left for the operator.)

What can be done for racing in these desperate circumstances? When the state appoints me czar of horse racing, I will implement the necessary plan. I will decree that Maryland's year-round racing schedule be abandoned, that live racing cease at Laurel, and that Pimlico conduct an abbreviated, high-quality meeting from early April though Memorial Day. These radical changes are based on inescapable economic realities - and the whole industry needs to face them.

Despite all of the current angst, the survival of the Preakness is not in doubt because the event is enormously profitable. Even if a new owner buys the Maryland tracks from the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., nobody in his right mind would move the race from a location where it has deep roots and draws more than 100,000 people each year. Because the Preakness will survive, Pimlico must survive.

But there is little reason for Laurel to do so. In an era when most racing fans prefer to watch and bet races at home, Laurel might have struggled under any circumstances. But as the racing experience there became so dismal, the defection of horseplayers accelerated, and the few who remain are mostly low-end customers. I was at Laurel on a sunny Friday this spring, while live racing was in progress, and in midafternoon I walked the length of the plant on every level, counting the crowd. I estimated the attendance at 650 people - most of whom were paying more attention to out-of-state simulcasts than to the horses on the track.

The sport's fan base is gone. The only rationale for the extended racing schedule at Laurel is to support the people who depend on the sport for a living. But that's no model for a business, and anyone who buys the Maryland tracks will conclude that Laurel is worth much more for its real estate than it is for a racing operation.

Live racing at Laurel should be ended, with the property used strictly as a simulcast operation - ideally in a new, clean, comfortable facility that is up-to-date technologically. Because a portion of all simulcasting revenue is, by law, earmarked for purses, Laurel would be generating income that would be stockpiled for purses at Pimlico. This is the model used successfully by Keeneland, Churchill Downs and other tracks: Simulcast year-round and create high purses for short live-race meetings.

Pimlico would have another source of significant funding for purses. Any slot operations in the state must channel 7 percent of revenue into purses and awards for breeders.

With a "boutique" springtime race meeting built around the Preakness, Pimlico would be able to offer high purses, a schedule of top stakes races, and lucrative opportunities for Maryland-breds, helping the state's battered breeding industry. Such a meeting would have the quality shared by the most successful tracks in the country. It would be special in the same way that Saratoga (with a six-week season), Del Mar (seven weeks) and Keeneland (15 days in the spring and 17 in the fall) are special. People look forward to their short meetings because they are not part of a monotonous year-round racing grind.

Pimlico commands such affection from Marylanders that a short, high-quality meeting could conceivably be a success. The one obvious drawback of this plan is the dreadful condition of its facilities. Its owners have never wanted to invest heavily in a building that was useful only for the Preakness. In order to be a successful operation for more than one day a year, Pimlico needs a major refurbishing. Perhaps the lawmakers sporting those "Save the Preakness" buttons could find a way to help.

(c) 2009, the Washington Post