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All bets off for stability of racing in Maryland

With slots revenue low, second leg of Triple Crown is the only sure thing

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One day a year, the sports world is focused on the state of Maryland. Like it does every May, this Saturday's Preakness Stakes brings eyeballs to Baltimore in the form of more than 100,000 in the stands and the infield and millions on television.

As Cricket Goodall of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association pointed out, that's free advertising for the city, the state and Maryland horse racing that can't be matched. And despite the rough straits Maryland racing is in, the worry about the Preakness leaving that was prevalent a few years ago is no longer there.

"I'm not concerned about it," Maryland Racing Commission executive director J. Michael Hopkins told The Washington Times on Wednesday. "It's the largest sporting event in the history of Maryland every year. It's like having the Super Bowl in Maryland every year."

With the race turning a profit of up to $10 million every year, Maryland horse racing can't survive without the Preakness. The state government passed a law in 2009 giving it authority to purchase the rights to the race, Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and Bowie Training Center if there's any danger of it leaving.

"It's not like a football team leaves and you can snatch one from another state. ... You'd never get another Preakness or even a comparable race to come back," Goodall said last week. "I think that's why the governor got so fired up about it."

Without the Preakness, Pimlico, which sits in what trainer Graham Motion called "not in a very good neighborhood," would cease to have its reason for existence. But Hopkins and Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas pointed out that the state's problems and situation aren't unique.

"You say the Preakness carries the day [financially]; well the same is true for the Derby in Kentucky," Chuckas said Tuesday.

Other states have solved financial woes mostly with slots revenue that isn't flowing in Maryland and might never the way it is in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Because of that, Gov. Martin O'Malley has charged a committee this summer to come up with a long-term plan for stability in Maryland horse racing. It will be made up of one representative from the racetracks, one from the thoroughbred horsemen and one from the breeders along with a nonvoting member from the state legislature.

Right now, racing is being subsidized through 2013 by slot money designed for capital improvements to tracks and facilities. The question, Chuckas, said, is what happens after that.

And while the Preakness leaving is not up for debate, just about everything else is.

"Everything's up for discussion, from track closures, reducing racing days — it's just the nature of the game right now," Hopkins said. "If they can get creative, legislative changes ... who knows?"

The biggest loss at that point could be jobs - but it's not nearly as bad as what would happen if the Preakness were to go. At least for now, it's not going anywhere.

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