Friday, July 25, 2003

No one can conjure up the era better than Laura Hillenbrand herself: “In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.”

So goes the opening paragraph of “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” the celebrated book that director Gary Ross adapted into a movie, released yesterday in area theaters, starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Oscar-winner Chris Cooper.

Probably no one under 75 can truly appreciate Seabiscuit’s astronomic popularity, not least because the sport of horse racing has become a fossilized husk of itself. Sure, we still have the annual Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont Stakes series, a tripartite rite of aristocratic spring, but the mass appeal doesn’t endure long past June.

A thoroughbred horse as popular hero? This year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, an equine Cinderella story, doesn’t even come close to Seabiscuit’s celebrity.

Who, beyond die-hard horsemen, will remember Funny Cide when he turns 4? Seabiscuit didn’t even run in the Triple Crown series, which is open only to 3-year-old colts, and his popularity only intensified after a spotty juvenile record.

Who will make a movie about Funny Cide 60 years from now?

The “undersized, crooked-legged” Seabiscuit earned a spot in the history books alongside such icons as Gehrig and Gable in part because horse racing was a different beast back then: It was a social magnet for wealth, style and glamour.

The racetrack then was a place to be seen; the West Coast tracks where the Seabiscuit legend was born were regular hubs for such movie stars as Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy — sort of like the Super Bowl or a Lakers playoff game are today.

Seabiscuit was a national hero, too. When the colt hit his stride, his owner, the late Charles Howard, shipped him across the country to both rural and urban racecourses where he ran before big, cheering, riveted crowds — including numerous times in the District metropolitan area, at tracks such as Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and one in Havre de Grace, Md., a facility now being used by the Maryland Army National Guard.

In fact, one of the biggest races of Seabiscuit’s storied career — the legendary 1938 match race in which he handily beat the previous year’s Triple Crown winner, War Admiral — was at Pimlico, the ailing home of the annual Preakness Stakes.

Pimlico, the original building of which was commissioned by a consummate racing fan and Maryland governor by the name of Oden Bowie in 1870, was once a swanky affair, with a Victorian clubhouse and violet-painted stands. Its modern successor, built between 1954 and 1966, is a derelict structure in a dodgy neighborhood.

Laurel Park, about 20 miles northeast of the District, is in the increasingly exurbanized Maryland countryside, and it, too, has seen better days.

No one is more acutely aware of this than Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel, Pimlico and a horse-training facility where the old Bowie racetrack once stood.

Mr. Capps is an amateur historian of horse racing, and he appreciates as well as anyone what the sport used to be like in its glory days: when racetracks routinely drew scores of thousands of spectators, when Seabiscuit was as popular as any New York Yankee.

“There are many times I sit around and wish we could return to those days,” he says in a phone interview.

Horse racing in its Depression-era and post-World War II heyday was “a thing to do,” he continues. “It was a bigger sport than professional football. The only thing comparable to it in those days, other than baseball, was probably college football.”

But those were decidedly different days — before television, online gambling, off-track betting and satellite-fed simulcasting, all of which allow bettors to wager on races across the country without leaving air-conditioned parlors or even their own homes.

In short, racing has become less about the horses and more about the gambling — a lottery whose numbers are placed on saddlecloths rather than plastic balls or convenience-store receipts.

“In the old days, nobody simulcast; there was no such thing as intertrack betting, because the technology wasn’t there to do it,” Mr. Capps says.

Horse races — and any entertainment diversion, for that matter — were neighborhood draws that not only predated satellite-wide sports consumption, but the modern shopping mall, too.

Besides today’s technological marvels, there’s also the saturation factor: There are, simply, more horses running at more racetracks more often.

In Seabiscuit’s day, “you might have had 15 or 20 tracks across the country,” says Mr. Capps. “There was no running in the wintertime outside the Sun Belt states. Everybody else was very seasonal, including Maryland.

“Delaware Park was brand new when Seabiscuit came on the scene, and there was no racing in Pennsylvania. And the tracks in those days ran short meets. Pimlico opened maybe for 15 or 20 days in the spring and fall.”

Today, in contrast, a customer can walk into a local racetrack in any given month and wager on 200 races at up to 25 different tracks on ATM-style electronic betting kiosks without ever speaking to a human teller (the racetrack employee who collects wagers and pays out cash winnings).

• • •

“Look around; this is the pits,” says John McDonnell, a Bowie horse enthusiast who holds his nose to partake of Laurel Park’s midweek simulcasting feed, which on a recent Tuesday — traditionally a slow day in the racing industry, with several tracks being “dark,” or closed to live racing — served up broadcasts from regional tracks in Delaware and Philadelphia and from venues as far away as Iowa and Ontario, Canada.

On this particular day, Laurel is an almost exclusively male preserve, and there’s barely anyone under age 40 to be seen (the result of the racing industry’s failure to recruit young fans, Mr. McDonnell figures).

The humdrum atmosphere of simulcasting is a stark contrast to the excitement of real, live horses. There’s an occasional burst of “Come on, two. Come on, two.” Mostly, however, the bettors are a staid group, quietly studying horses’ past performance sheets, peeking at flickering odds on multiple-TV banks that resemble the audio-video section of an appliance store.

While Laurel just kicked off its month-long summer season of live racing on Thursday, the 55-year-old Mr. McDonnell doesn’t quite quicken with excitement at the prospect.

“Maryland racing has become a shell of itself,” he laments, a showcase for “the unfit and the unready — poor, incestuous fields” of horses.

Mr. McDonnell continues: “I can remember seeing Joe DiMaggio at the races once, in the mid-‘60s at Garden State,” a racetrack in New Jersey. “The heyday of racing is long gone.”

Dave Faucett of Catonsville, Md., agrees: “This place used to be packed,” motioning toward the sparsely populated parlors and the ghost town outside.

Now, he’s convinced, Maryland’s horse-racing mavens are intent on burying live racing, favoring instead the low-overhead profits that simulcasting offers. “They forgot about the normal fans,” he contends.

Mr. Capps says Maryland racetracks, which recently came under the control of the Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp., operate that way because that’s the direction the market has pushed the industry.

(Notable exceptions are elite tracks such as Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York and Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, Ky., which are open for short, roughly month-long stints and still draw enormous daily crowds that top 20,000.)

“We’re doing business at a higher level than we ever have,” he says. “The complication is that it’s coming from so many different sources. You’ve got it coming from three angles: live racing in Maryland, simulcasting in Maryland and money bet on Maryland races from out of state.

“What everybody’s finding nationally is that fans like to have all those options,” says Mr. Capps. “In doing that, you obviously change the business. We’re open year-round, and we don’t run as efficiently as we used to.”

While the size of the horse-racing pie has increased, there are now a lot more fingers in it. This, together with higher overhead costs from staying open year-round has squeezed the Maryland Jockey Club’s already marginal profits, Mr. Capps says, leaving precious little cash for such things as infrastructure upgrades. The crumbling, kitschy edifices that are Laurel and Pimlico stand little chance of pleasing patrons who are accustomed to spanking new malls and cineplexes, he admits.

The organization had been counting on a new infusion of revenue from slot machines, but the initiative to extend and diversify gambling at Maryland’s racetracks — an issue on which Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, campaigned vigorously — has stalled in the state legislature.

So the old buildings will continue to waste away; the walls in Laurel’s clubhouse will remain a tone of orange that hasn’t been mixed since the early ‘70s; and the inveterate horsemen will keep coming.

Their number is graying and dwindling, however, and it’s far below the replacement rate of a healthy population.

• • •

Against this bleak backdrop, there’s Charles “Chick” Lang, a septuagenarian icon of Maryland racing who doesn’t hold with what he calls the “merchants of doom and gloom.” The old conflict between hope and experience doesn’t apply to Mr. Lang because he’s got oodles of both.

Don’t think he hasn’t noticed how the sport has declined. He insists it’s not just horse racing that has taken a hit: “Society has changed. It’s the same with racing.”

Baseball, in the same age bracket as horse racing, is riddled with the same conflicts — the hyper-competition for entertainment dollars; the passing of the communal, neighborhood stadium; a dissipating audience.

The former vice president and general manager of Pimlico, now retired and living on the Eastern Shore, consulted on Miss Hillenbrand’s book and helped fact-check the movie adaptation.

When “Seabiscuit’s” production team scouted Pimlico as a possible filming site, he says the track wasn’t deemed authentic enough for a movie set in the ‘30s — “too much chain-link fence,” he reports.

He actually witnessed the grand match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral when he was 12 years old.

“I can see it like it happened yesterday,” he recalls. “There’s been nothing like it since.”

Mr. Lang hasn’t seen the celluloid version of “Seabiscuit” yet, but one thing he has noticed is the robust marketing machine that has been touting its release.

“I just came from the barbershop, and it was on TV there. It’s everywhere,” he says. “It’s nice that something like this came along, and it could have an enormous impact on racing. The opportunity is there to capitalize on it.

“Get some of those marketing geniuses and promotionally minded people” behind the sport as a whole, not just the movie, he suggests.

Louisville and Lexington, two Kentucky horse-racing meccas, have quickly gotten into the act. Gov. Paul E. Patton, a Kentucky Democrat, and those cities each officially declared July 19 Seabiscuit Day in celebration of advance screenings of the movie, according to the Associated Press.

Of course, Mr. Lang isn’t the only one hoping the movie will revive interest in the sport.

“I think what it will do is twofold,” Keeneland President Nick Nicholson told the AP. “It will sort of bring back fans that have forgotten how much fun [racing] is, and hopefully introduce the sport to a generation of fans that might otherwise not have tried it.”

Mr. Capps says, anecdotally, that “Seabiscuit” has already sparked new interest in horse racing. “Group sales have been booked in August just based on the movie hype. It’s putting the racetrack back in people’s minds. It’s definitely going to have a very strong residual impact, at least in the immediate future,” he says.

Kevin Long, a Severna Park resident who was at Laurel on Tuesday, says he definitely plans on seeing “Seabiscuit,” if only to see what it was like when 40,000 people thronged Pimlico on a day other than the Preakness Stakes. “You used to have packed grandstands 20, even 15 years ago, when I started coming to the racetrack.

“I’ll be bringing the whole family [to the movie],” he says.

While the racing industry would love to soak up residual cash from “Seabiscuit” patrons, longtime fans themselves are simply pining for a movie that does justice to what’s still, rather quaintly, called the “sport of kings.”

Mr. Lang is the son of a Hall of Fame jockey who won the Kentucky Derby aboard Reigh Count in 1928, and he is the grandson of another rider who won it in 1903.

After school let out, he would make a beeline for Pimlico and crawl under the fence, just to soak up the culture of a racetrack — the stable area and feed rooms, the jockeys’ quarters, the horses working out, or “breezing,” around the mile-long oval.

There is no bigger racing fan than he, and this is what “Seabiscuit” means to him:

“If this movie’s not good, I’ll cry. I really will cry.”

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