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The Race to Save the Sport

May 12, 2011 01:38PM ● By Anonymous

As the sun begins to burn away the morning dew, loud rumbles of whinnying generate echoes through the barn. The backstretch workforce—grooms, hot-walkers and trainers—have been hard at work for hours. A typical day on the track starts between 4:30 and 5 a.m., with little time for anything but a deep breath between morning feedings and exercise rides. While trainers plan their race strategies, workers are busy bathing horses, walking them, and cleaning stalls. Being behind the scenes at a racetrack can be an overwhelming experience for a newcomer. Watching the well-muscled bodies of the horses stretch into their workouts, with what looks like joy in their eyes, can make anyone understand the draw to such a hard lifestyle. Horse racing has been a part of this state for more than 250 years. The legacy and charm left behind by some of Maryland’s top racehorses resounds through the stables at Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Horses and racing are two entities that have been intertwined for thousands of years. Since man first rode atop the horse, he has been fascinated by the speed and strength they could generate. It’s no wonder that horseracing won so many hearts and wagers in our state. But these days, the industry is slowly becoming a speck on Maryland’s landscape.

Fame, Fortune, and the Triple Crown

The first recorded U.S. horse race occurred in Virginia, and by 1740 it had overflowed into Maryland. In order to conduct and regulate the races, the Maryland Jockey Club was formed in 1743. Still operational today, the Maryland Jockey Club is the oldest sporting association in the United States. Maryland and horse racing had officially begun their long love affair.

In the early years, politicians and presidents all enjoyed the benefits of racing horses. George Washington’s own diary makes note of meetings with the Maryland Jockey Club and of breeding and racing horses. In 1783, after the Revolutionary War had put a hold on racing, Governor William Paca and Charles Carroll reestablished the organization. Over the years, other predominant members of the Maryland Jockey Club included Benjamin C. Stoddert, first secretary of the Navy, and President Andrew Jackson. These are only a few of the men responsible for instituting the all important-regulations and scales for racing.

But there is little weight in just holding meetings without an official racecourse to hold competitions. On October 25, 1870, Pimlico race course was born in Baltimore City. Viewed by 12,000 fans, the first race at Pimlico sparked the thoroughbred industry. Today, Pimlico is one the oldest race courses in the United States, second only to Saratoga in upstate New York. At this historic track, Marylanders viewed legendary horses like Mar o’ War, Sir Barton, Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Citation, Secretariat, and Cigar thunder at top speed to the finish line.

The first race at Pimlico also gave way to the first official prize purses. On opening day the purse was set at $10,000 for a match race, but was raised to $15,000 the next day. There has been exponential growth of purse amount since these first races. Moreover, in 1937, Pimlico led the nation in purse distribution.

The Preakness, along with the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, had been established with sought-after purses for many years. But it wasn’t until 1919, when the Thoroughbred Racing Association announced Sir Barton as the first winner of the Triple Crown, that the three races became famously linked. And in December of 1950, Pimlico officially became the host of the second leg of the Triple Crown. Despite many attempts, only 11 horses have ever won the coveted title.

Many horses bred in Maryland have gone on to fame and fortune at the hands of local breeders and trainers. Cigar, a horse bred by one of the oldest breeding farms in Maryland, is known for being one of the most competitive horses. In addition, he is the richest racehorse in America. Other famous Maryland racehorses include Northern Dancer, Native Dancer, Spectacular Bid, Omaha, and Ruffian.

Just several miles south of Pimlico, Laurel Park opened in 1911 and became Maryland’s second most profitable racetrack during its century of operation. It too has seen some of the sports most graceful and prize-winning thoroughbreds run its 1 1/8-mile flat course. Laurel has also undergone a number of structural renovations during the ’50s, ’60s, ’80s, and ’90s in efforts to attract spectators. The track’s “golden years” could be considered the mid-’80s when the Sports Palace—a $2 million betting facility— was opened. But like Pimlico, the track’s long-term future remains a question mark as spectator interest continues to decline.

Adversity Stares Down an Industry

The racing industry has gone through many changes since Marylanders first fell in love with the sport in the 1700s. Recently, spectator enthusiasm for the sport has faded and the draw of horse racing in general has loosened. The national recession put holes in the industry, making those who love the sport work harder to hold it together. And current political issues surrounding slot machines and former Pimlico/Laurel track owner Magna Entertainment’s bankruptcy put further pressure on the already weak local industry.

There is no aspect of racing that has not been altered by the recession. Trainers have been forced to shrink their businesses, and breeders are producing fewer thoroughbreds. In fact, breeding in the United States in 2010 declined to 30,000 new foals, the lowest since the 1970s. Local horse trainers, such as Robin Graham of Laurel, are seeing a drop in the amount of horses available for her to train. As a member of the racing industry since 1973, Graham once had up to 30 horses in her training barn. Today, her barn is down to nine potential winners. She attributes the decline to both the economy and the political battle over slot machines. “People used to send horses here from Kentucky, but purses have gotten better everywhere else, so they are less inclined to send horses here,” she says, explaining one of the many reasons for her support of slot machines at Maryland tracks. “[Slots] need to be here because the community knows [betting] is here…People who don’t bet are going to stay away anyway,” claims Graham.

When Magna Entertainment canceled the sale of both Laurel and Pimlico and declined to pay the necessary fees to put in a bid for slots, they added more doom to an already struggling industry. After weathering wars, depressions, fires, storms, and time itself, one can only hope that Maryland’s horse racing industry will survive the political thrashings that have been hitting hard in the past few years.

Mark Higgins, of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, believes the formula for slots revenue, created in Canada, benefits not only the track owners, but everyone involved in the racing industry—including breeders, and trainers. Higgins became involved in the racing industry because he simply loves the animals. He came to Maryland by chance many years ago and has remained, despite the bleak outlook. “Maryland had a reputation for being a blue collar state with horses. They didn’t have fancy horses and pedigrees, but they could go anywhere and be competitive in any class,” says Higgins.

In recent years, Maryland was slowly developing a vacancy in racing as trainers and breeders were moving to those states that allowed slots. Successful racing businesses are being established in states like Pennsylvania where slots are not only allowed, but quickly growing in popularity. Revenue from them is fueling their own racing economy, while taking away from Maryland’s claims to racing. “If nobody had slots, the playing field would be even,” says Higgins. But he also noted that the inception of a state lottery has created a decline in wagering at races. When people can just buy a lottery ticket every day, they are less likely to travel to a racetrack to gamble.

The battle over slots is only the tip of the iceberg. Tighter enforcement of immigration law has affected the availability of cheap labor in the racing industry across the board. Track and stable maintenance is difficult work, but does not traditionally pay well. “I used to have trouble getting help anyway,” says Graham. “Now, workers are being sent home, leaving open jobs that no one wants to claim. But the number of horses needing care is not going to vanish simply because there is no one to do the job.”

Eleventh Hour Solution

The recession, a declining interest in the sport, slots debate, and labor challenges altogether created a state of panic for horse racing in Maryland. Throughout 2010, the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and Maryland Horse Breeders Association had been at odds with the Maryland Racing Commission in discussions concerning the 2011 thoroughbred racing schedule. The three groups—representing the jockeys, horse owners, trainers, and breeders—
heatedly argued the need for a full 146-day racing schedule to maintain the livelihood of the sport. The Maryland Racing Commission, however, proposed a contingency plan in which the three groups would need to make significant financial contributions of their own to curtail hemorrhaging expenses, all in an effort to simply keep the sport alive in Maryland. There was ample disagreement between the two sides.

At stake were 15,400 total jobs generated by the Maryland racing industry. Annual revenue gained from breeding and racing horses in the state is more than triple the amount of other sporting events in Maryland combined. According to the American Horse Council Foundation’s 2005 study, the horse industry in Maryland accounts for $1.6 billion. Revenue claimed by the racing industry alone is upwards of $826 million. How could Maryland afford to let a once-profitable industry fail?

But with the recent passage of slots legislation, there might be hope for the industry, as state revenue generated from casinos could be funneled to the horse racing industry. As the days left in 2010 dwindled with a December deadline drawing near for the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and Maryland Horse Breeders Association to reach a compromise with the Maryland Racing Commission, an eleventh-hour deal was struck. Both sides agreed on a 146-day racing schedule, compromising financial obligations and earmarking state contributions, which will be drawn from slots revenue. For now, horse racing in Maryland—and the storied tradition of the Preakness Stakes—is saved.

Though the future of Maryland thoroughbred racing is still somewhat murky, it’s clear that major change and revitalization is needed in order to pump life into the industry. Will slots revenue stimulate the industry or will the lure of casinos ultimately kill traffic to tracks? Does the industry need to be completely reworked? “The industry needs to shrink to some level where it can survive,” claims Higgins. “You have to find the bottom of the recession before you can build your business again,” he says.

According to the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, Mark Hopkins, having a positive outlook will only help the industry survive. “The horse industry in Maryland, like every other business, has been impacted by the economy. [But] everyone is optimistic that the breeding and racing industry will improve.”

Jennifer Robson previously interned at What’s Up? Media. She is an avid horse owner and caretaker.