- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Maryland horse racing will look alive and well today at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

More than 100,000 fans will cram the grandstands and infield at the track for the 129th Preakness Stakes to see whether Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones can earn the second jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown.

The story of Smarty Jones, who nearly blinded himself in one eye a year ago when he banged his head against a starting-gate bar, has captured the imagination of race fans. He is the Preakness favorite — 6-to-5 as of yesterday — and anticipation continues to build toward today’s 6:15 p.m. post time as he tries to become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

But beyond the prestige and panache of the Preakness is a state industry in steady decline. Once the Mid-Atlantic leader, Maryland now trails Delaware and West Virginia, which use slot machines to bolster their once-shuttered tracks, and Pennsylvania is considering a similar route.

Maryland tracks are pondering a two-week shutdown to balance a $3 million purse deficit created by insufficient revenue. Breeding farms have lost nearly half of their stallions and a quarter of the foal births since 1992. Breeding farms may become housing developments as financially pressed owners surrender to developers.

“It’s not all gloom and doom,” Country Life Farm manager Mike Pons said, “but it would be so much easier if we could turbocharge purses and make changes to the tracks.”

Maryland racing’s quixotic quest for slots was supposed to be fulfilled by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican whose 2002 campaign opposed the no-slots stance of his Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening. Racing leaders enticed horse breeders and owners to stay in the state, promising new tracks and bigger purses once slots were approved.

Two straight years of failed bills have those in the racing industry realizing that slot machines may never be a reality. Mr. Ehrlich told a Pimlico audience on Thursday that a special summer or fall legislative session for slots is a possibility, but racing leaders don’t expect it. Instead, they are prepared for cutbacks.

State breeders say they are losing out-of-state mares for their stallions that could cost Marylanders millions of dollars in stud fees. Many foals are born elsewhere instead of in Maryland, where the state-bred incentive fund was once the nation’s best.

“Some of our clients are shipping out of state to foal in New York and West Virginia and Pennsylvania,” Murmur Farm owner Audrey Murray said. “Some farm owners just won’t be able to hang on. When they’re offered all the money [to sell their land] for development, it’s hard to resist.”

Fewer state-born horses mean fewer runners on the track. Fewer horses means less wagering, which trickles down to the industry’s 13,000 jobs.

To balance their purse accounts, Maryland tracks are expected to eliminate two weeks in September and drop below their 220 annual dates. Year-round racing since the 1950s has attracted family-oriented horsemen who don’t have to relocate regularly. More cutbacks could jeopardize that balance.

“The reason Maryland racing has worked for years is we’re not a bunch of transients like other states,” trainer-breeder Ann Merriman said. “We have year-round racing in a commutable locations.”

Said Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen Association attorney Alan Foreman: “Horsemen are going to go where they earn the most money. We have to make cuts. They are very few options left.”

Mr. Ehrlich said legislators don’t realize racing’s impact, which includes 250,000 acres of green space. The governor said one prominent businessman claimed he would trade all of the state’s breeding farms for one biotechnology business park.

“That thought process is out there. It is serious and needs to be taken down,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “We need biotech parks and horse racing. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Racing officials worry slot legislation delays eventually will hurt them.

“Slots became bogged down with nothing to do with racing in the battle of whether to increase taxes as additional revenue source,” Mr. Foreman said.

Magna Entertainment Corp., which purchased Pimlico and Laurel Park in 2002, is renovating both tracks in order to compete for a younger audience. However, it won’t raze either facility without slots to help fund the more than $200 million projects.

“Nothing goes as fast as we want it to,” said Maryland trainer Linda Albert, whose Maryland-bred horse Water Cannon is in the Preakness field. “We want Magna to come in and spend $100 million, but they have how many other tracks? These tracks need major work.”

Racegoers remain optimistic a turnaround can occur. The “Maryland Miracle” comeback in the late 1980s resurrected the industry, and it could happen again.

“Maryland’s tradition is horse racing, so we’ll battle our way through this,” Mrs. Albert said. “It will be worse before it gets better, though it won’t get better right away.”

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