07/04/2001 11:00PM

Why fewer want to bet Maryland


WASHINGTON - Ever since the advent of simulcasting, customers at the Maryland racetracks have been betting more and more of their money on televised races and less on the local product. But this negative trend has been offset by Maryland's success in the simulcast marketplace; out-of-state bettors have wagered enough on races from Pimlico and Laurel to keep the sport here relatively healthy.

However, the data on wagering at the current Pimlico meeting ought to alarm everyone concerned about the well-being of Maryland racing. The downward trend should prompt serious discussion about its causes - although a prime suspect is likely to be ignored.

At first glance, Pimlico's figures don't look too bad because the Preakness generated blockbuster business and that masks what is happening at the track day to day. But with Preakness Day disregarded, there is a striking contrast between the 62 racing dates at Pimlico in 2000 and the first 62 days of this year's longer meeting.

Marylanders bet $33,269,763 on Maryland races in 2000 but $26,542,598 in 2001. Marylanders' betting on simulcasts rose from $84,039,447 in 2000 to $90,186,482 in 2001.

This is the familiar trend, with dollars being diverted from live races to simulcasts, although the drop of more than 20 percent in betting on Maryland races is unusually precipitous. But out-of-state action is no longer offsetting this decline. Out-of-state betting on Maryland fell from $122,651,884 in 2000 to $112,928,975 in 2001.

Perhaps this is a statistical blip, but it could easily be a decline that feeds on itself. The size of betting pools at Pimlico is shrinking ominously. Sunday, barely $16,000 was wagered on the daily double; some pick three and superfecta pools contained less than $4,000. Even if a horseplayer is inclined to play Pimlico, he might look at these puny pools and conclude there's no point. And thus the handle continues to drop.

What has triggered this decline? Certainly, the quality of the racing at Pimlico has been less than spectacular. The cheapest races have been especially dismal, since bottom-level horses are regularly lured to West Virginia by generous purses at Charles Town. Nevertheless, the quality of the racing product and the size of fields seem to be on a par with last year.

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland tracks, offered his theory: "It's a matter of competition." Raffetto noted Maryland's business dropped with the opening of Monmouth Park, where increased purses have produced bigger fields and more attractive racing. Raffetto observed, too, that the members of Churchill Downs's growing network of tracks promote one another's simulcasts to the detriment of independents such as Pimlico and Laurel.

But another, less visible, factor is affecting the tracks' business. Pimlico's betting totals for 2000, cited above, were registered before an increase in the takeout from wagers on Maryland races. When the Maryland Racing Act of 2000 went into effect July 1, the cost of placing a wager rose by an average of 1 1/2 percentage points. The take from win bets went from 17 to 18 percent, exactas from 19 to 21 percent, trifectas from 25 to 25.75 percent, with the added revenue supposedly earmarked for physical improvements at the tracks.

Maryland now is charging a significantly higher price for a wager than any of its important competitors in the simulcast marketplace. While Pimlico takes 18 percent from every win bet, Churchill Downs gets 16 percent, Hollywood Park 15.43 and Belmont Park 15. Some of the disparities in exotic wagering are even greater; the cost of a trifecta bet is 25.75 percent at Pimlico, 19 at Churchill Downs. When Belmont and Hollywood Park feature superior horses and Churchill regularly cards large, competitive fields, why would customers pay a premium price to wager on races at Pimlico? Evidently, many of them see no reason to do so.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post