For many years, the only stable force in Maryland’s horse racing industry was the Preakness Stakes.
The Preakness, set annually on the third Saturday in May, allows Baltimore to be the center of the horse racing world when more than 100,000 people converge at Pimlico Racetrack with hopes of watching a thoroughbred win the second leg of the sport’s Triple Crown.
Despite the international interest and exposure, the existence of the race and the industry continues to remain in flux. Attendance at the state’s three main tracks – Pimlico, Laurel Park and Timonium – dropped 17 percent between 2010 and 2012.
But, for the first time in a long time those in the industry have an upbeat mindset, and not just for the 139th running of the Preakness on Saturday. That’s because the horse racing industry is finally starting to reap the benefits of casino revenues.
“It’s a known fact that states without casino gaming cannot compete with states that do when it comes to horse racing,” said Crickett Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “It’s been a slow process, but we’ve got people interested in Maryland racing again for the first time in a long time.”
Supporters of horse racing in Maryland lobbied the state legislature for years that expanded gambling was needed to compete with neighboring states such as West Virginia and Delaware.
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Voters approved a measure in 2008 for gambling, eventually allowing for the construction of six casinos in Maryland. While there are no casinos located at the track in the Maryland, legislation passed in the state funnels a portion of the proceeds to benefit horse racing purses and capital improvements at the tracks.
This has correlated into millions of guaranteed funds for the industry. According to the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, casino revenues accounted for nearly $32 million for race purses and $7.8 million for racetrack renewal funds in Fiscal Year 2014.
This will be evident at the Preakness as the award is up to a record $1.5 million, compared to $1 million from a year ago.
“Horse racing in Maryland could not compete without the casinos,” said Bruce Quade, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. “Those funds allow the industry to finally move forward.”
Stability in the sport
Industry officials said casino revenue also helped in part to establish labor peace in the sport following the brokering of a 10-year agreement between the Maryland Jockey Club, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the Maryland Racing Commission.
The agreement guarantees a minimum of 100 racing days a year with the potential to add more through a revenue-sharing program. The deal will also allow the Maryland Jockey Club to invest in capital projects at Pimlico and Laurel Park.
“We all had to get together and show a united front in order to preserve this great industry,” said Tom Chuckas, Maryland Jockey Club president. “There is now not just stability, but credibility in the industry that was lacking in previous years.”
David Richardson, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said there is a spirit of cooperation in the industry that hasn’t existed in years past.
“The state told us to get our houses in order and that’s what we did,” Richardson said. “We’re moving forward and the slots program isn’t even fully ramped up yet.”
Goodall said the impact of the additional funds has started to provide a positive trickle-down effect throughout the industry. The impact includes breeding in Maryland, which saw the registered foal crop fall from 1,470 in 1992 to 363 in 2012.
Now, Goodall said, breeding is trending upward as she projects as many as 200 additional foals in Maryland over the next several years. This will come in part due to the opening of Heritage Stallions in Chesapeake City, Goodall said.
“It makes sense because breeders, like in any business, want to go where the money is,” Goodall said. “For years, many breeders didn’t want to leave Maryland, but they felt like they had no choice because the commitment wasn’t there.”
But, with all the positives that come from the casinos, those in the racing industry know that casinos are also direct competitors for the gambling dollar, especially with Horseshoe Casino slated to open later this year in Baltimore and another casino set for National Harbor in Prince George’s County in the not-too-distant future.
Chuckas said it’s obvious that slots and/or other casino gambling will likely never be at the tracks in Maryland like they are in other states. So, Chuckas added, the tracks need to find other ways to compete.
This, he said, could include developing upscale restaurants, music venues, hotels and shopping around the tracks.
“We still take the position that horse racing is our core business,” Chuckas said. “That being said, we know we need
to offer a diverse experience and work to bring younger and additional people out to the track.”
Chuckas said everything is on the table to generate more interest in the sport, from expanding off-track betting to exploring night racing. However, with no lights at the track, the latter would take considerable capital improvements.
“Even though people say racing is in decline, it still generates $10 billion annually across the nation,” Chuckas said. “The key is to make it a more enjoyable experience and as convenient as possible. The era of people getting off their night shift at the plant and heading to the track after work is long gone.”