Horse racing has a long and storied history in Maryland, but it's not one tied just to colorful jockey silks, the roar of the gamblers, or the beauty of the beasts: It's about jobs, land preservation, and a way of life. Sure, Preakness-related expenditures still impress: In 2007, they totaled $23.8 million and generated $1.4 million in state and local taxes. And the racing industry employs roughly 20,000 people while preserving more than 200,000 acres of green space. Yet the recent bankruptcy filing of Pimlico and Laurel track owner Magna Entertainment Corp. caught few observers by surprise: It was only the latest horseshoe to drop for a trademark Maryland industry that's been in decline for more than a decade. But there are thousands of Marylanders who live for horses and horse racing, and they get out of bed every morning hoping for a brighter future for the industry. And there are others who, whether they like it or not, will see their lives changed by the rise or fall of racing. We learn through their eyes about the challenges facing Pimlico and Laurel, and what the solutions may be.
"I've bet at Aqueduct, Belmont, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Charlestown, Philadelphia, and Delaware. Compared to those, Maryland could do better. I mean, they have the history, and they are one of the big three of the Triple Crown circuit. But the purses are sort of low, so you don't get a lot of the top people down here sometimes.
A lot of the top jockeys and top trainers gravitate toward New York, or right now, it's Florida. Pimlico's been a little neglected, really.
These trainers and these jockeys, they're racing for the best money they can get and the best competition. And frankly, the slot revenue is supposed to increase the purses, and increased purses would increase the caliber of people that bring their horses down here. The big trainers would come down here more often, the Todd Fletchers and the Nick Zitos, and the big names in horse racing would race in Maryland. Unfortunately, they bypass Maryland because of the prize money.
Another thing that they could do with slot revenue is more fan-friendly stuff, like dollar-hot-dog-night-type things. I think Laurel does a little bit for fan promotions. They've sort of let Pimlico go to ruin.
Here's something that really got on my nerves last year in Triple Crown season. At Hollywood Park in California on Preakness day and on Derby day, people go out and they dress up like they're going to the actual event, but they're really just going to the OTB [Off Track Betting] Center where it's going to be shown. At Hollywood Park, the Jumbotron comes on, everybody stops, everybody watches the Derby.
What killed me at Pimlico on Derby day is that they had it on 19-inch TVs, and on the Jumbotron, they were showing these races from Chile. It's the biggest race of the year and everybody's huddled around 19-inch TV screens. That's almost absurd, actually.
With horse racing, one of the good things about it is you're involved in the scene. If your favorite football team wins, your baseball team wins, yeah, you're happy, but what's your investment in it, really?
In horse racing, you invest in whether your horse wins. You have a stake in it, more than just a good feeling.
And the morality debate surrounding betting is bogus. Any track you go to, any casino you go to, there's always going to be those people who are throwing their rent money away, but you can do it right so you don't just throw money at nothing. If you're going to shut the whole thing down because there's some problems within the people doing it, well then, there's a lot of things that should be shut down. There are people who get into car accidents. . . well, let's get rid of cars. You want to focus on the bad aspects of anything really, you can do that. Why pick on horse racing?"
The Assistant Trainer
Dan Marchant (former groom)
"When I was 15, I needed a job and my brother was a jockey and he got me a job at the racetrack walking horses. But you don't see a lot of the younger kids wanting to do it anymore. It was different when I started. There were a lot more young people looking to work with horses on the back side and there was a lot less foreign help than there is now. And the crowd wasn't quite as old that watched the races. The same people that were there 22 years ago that I thought, 'God, these people are old,' are the same crowd that's there now.
At Pimlico, there's also the crime coming from the depressed neighborhoods next door, to the west and south. I was at work the day before my birthday. I guess it was about five minutes to five. I stuck my head out of one of the little side doors there at Pimlico and there were two young guys that I'd never seen before. I don't know what happened then: I thought he hit me in the side of the head. Well, the whole time they'd actually been stabbing me. I ended up getting stabbed upwards of about 20 times. In the end, I lost my spleen and ended up with some nerve damage in my leg.
For over a year, I didn't go back to Pimlico. But the thrill of winning races and being with horses is just so powerful. It was never easy for me to go back to Pimlico.
I thought after I got hurt maybe they've done some improvements to security because security has always been an issue at Pimlico. I mean not only for the people, but there's some really valuable animals there. But they've just never bothered to step up.
The horse-racing industry is in trouble.
I thought slots would help, but I don't think it will cure everything because there are so many places now that have slots. They need to become more fan-friendly. And a lot of the tellers are not very helpful. Charging admission to a place where you want people to bet their money is kind of silly. They also need to do something different with their concession stands. At Pimlico, they have the infield that they open up for the Preakness. I don't understand why every weekend they don't have performances or events going on in the infield that lure families out there. Delaware Park does stuff like that."
Dr. Tom Bowman
"I'm a partner in Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City, which is widely recognized as the most successful breeding operation outside of the state of Kentucky. Our farm breeds well over 500 mares a year. When I left New Bolton Center [the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school] in about 1972, there were a lot of breeding farms in Maryland. Over the years, the entire breeding aspect has shrunk. I don't think we can blame the decline to one or two things. Obviously, Maryland, in particular, is becoming increasingly urbanized, and when you get urban pressure, it's sometimes easier for people to sell agricultural land to developers. I think there has been a decreasing interest among younger people in horse racing. Also, the sport has gotten enormously expensive. The immediate economic crunch is obviously having its effect, but just the last few years, the cost of owning horses has gone up dramatically.
The costs have outweighed the potential earnings index for the horses.
I was chairman of the commission that Governor Ehrlich appointed to study slots feasibility from the industry standpoint. I would say that ever since this discussion of slot machines has arisen, it's been painfully obvious that the state is not terribly concerned about racing or the thoroughbred industry overall. Pennsylvania and West Virginia crafted legislation acknowledging the horse industry was a powerful part of agriculture in their states. In Maryland, though, it's been the caboose, rather than the engine.
We're so far behind in getting the ball rolling that even if the slots program were to go to fruition, we're going to have a very difficult time attracting new people to buy land and raise horses in this state. Those people that have moved their horses, for the most part, have moved to Pennsylvania. Why would they come back? They say timing is everything, and we dragged our feet on slots for years and we have the terrible misfortune of finally developing a bill when the economy is very definitely going south for everybody. And the bill demands so much revenue from the total picture that the people trying to establish the slots venues are having a tough time seeing their way to a profit.
When I came here, racing was top-notch. That's all changed. Almost all the stake races are completely gone, funding has dried up, and there doesn't seem to be a real clear path to how that's going to return. From a personal standpoint, it was with significant disappointment that I had to acknowledge that if our commercial venture in Northview was going to stay in business in the near term, we were going to have to open a division in Pennsylvania, which we did. There's several million dollars invested in this new operation that I would have preferred not to have done, but there's no denying that the future of the industry, at this point, appears to be north of our border."
The Community Leader
Aaron Meisner, President, Mt. Washington Improvement Association and Anti-slots Activist
"Many of our neighbors enjoy living near Pimlico. When you leave Mt. Washington, oftentimes you can see the horses training in the morning, and it can be quite lovely. On the other side of that equation, Pimlico has not always been the best neighbor. People who attend the Preakness don't always treat our neighborhood as they would treat their own. And the track management has not always done a very good job of reaching out to engage the neighbors. So oftentimes, we end up being surprised by the decisions of management.
In terms of neighborliness, sometimes we feel like we're not really being treated that well.
There are two schools of thought within the Mt. Washington community about the survival of Pimlico. There is a group of people who feel that Pimlico is very important because it provides a geographic demarcation between some of the blighted neighborhoods to the south and the more affluent neighborhoods to the north. The other perspective is that the track has outlived its era; it's been a lot of years where people have waited for Pimlico to return to its former glory and some of us feel that it's time to look at this realistically and start to think about another path.
Right now, we're dealing with a now-bankrupt property owner who has not really been able to maintain the property, who's used the condition of the property for political gain, and who's been a very difficult neighbor. I think that it's going to require patience in order to get to the best idea for that land, should the track fail to exist. We're going to be very much engaged in the process, and we're not taking it lightly.
But I think you can't deny reality forever. Which brings us back to the whole slots debate. In my personal role as a political activist outside the Mt. Washington Improvement Association—which has stayed relatively neutral on the issue—I said over and over again that this was not a plan that was going to save horse racing, save the taxpayers, or save anything else for that matter.
People aren't interested in horse racing anymore and the industry is simply trying to play on people's heartstrings for the way it used to be, in order to gain a huge windfall for a select few well-connected racetrack owners. It's not something I take any satisfaction from, it's just the reality of it. More of the same and a desperate move toward predatory gambling is not the answer for horse racing."
"I got my trainer's license in about '76. I just understood horses and I felt like I could make a living. There was no inter-track wagering, there was no simulcasting, there was no off-track betting in this country then. Our purses were totally made up of what was bet on the horses that raced at that track that day. It was not an international business. Basically, people trained horses at that racetrack. Now, the top trainers in this business train 200 horses. They have outfits across the country, and some horses are flown back and forth from Europe.
Now that I'm older and I'm more involved in the politics of it, I see that horse racing has changed and evolved. Obviously, as we've gotten more competition, be it NASCAR or something else, the crowds have diminished. Racing has really lagged in figuring out how to be a competitive entertainment. Making racing competitive from an entertainment perspective is a great challenge, if we are going to stay in this business.
I want it to sustain until the next generation. But slots have been a little bit of a slippery slope to me, because if we are a parasite of a larger industry, I've never quite understood how the marriage was going to work. It's not like anybody that runs a casino business is philanthropic or loves racing so much that they're going to keep it going even though it costs money. What's happened at the tracks around us, it looks good, and the purses are good, but they're just in it for the money, those casino operators. Every place that has gotten slots, but which is now run by casino operators instead of horse people, lacks pride for the horsemen and the shape of the racetrack. You should go to Philadelphia Park and see the trash on the back side. So in some ways, with what's happening now, it might not be that terrible that you have a casino operator running the casino. But racing, as a different business, has to run itself and be successful.
Because I'd been at Pimlico all those years, I like Pimlico. It's a great part of the city. You can go anywhere in the world and the trademark of Preakness is an identity for Baltimore that I cannot understand losing.
I would love to see a company revitalize Pimlico and reconnect it to the city. I would have flea markets and have the Maryland Art Institute students out there to sell their art; I just think there have to be other incentives for people to come to the races than obviously just racing, because it hasn't sold as a stand-alone product. I had an owner that came one day and said, 'Where's the Starbucks and the magazine rack?' in the track. He's right: Where are those things?
Horse people are probably better stewards of the land than anybody. We're user-friendly for the Chesapeake Bay, and there's a lot of land that's gone into land preservation. There are not very many young farmers coming along. People love to drive around and look at beautiful farms, but there has to be a justification for them."
"I came to Maryland in about 1979 and have been here ever since. Maryland was great racing. Back in '79 and the '80s, the fans were into it more. I have win pictures from the '80s—you look in the background of the picture and you see the people fill the grandstand. You get a picture nowadays and there's nobody there. Everybody loved to go to Pimlico because the track's really near the people, so you hear the noise from the crowd coming out of the stretch. You used to go to the track, you couldn't even get to the jockeys' room it was so packed. Now you go and you can run right through there and might see three or four people. And you don't hear anybody when you're coming down the stretch, because there's nobody there.
I miss the crowds of that era. Everything felt more special.
I've been going to Delaware for about four years because when you have the better purses, there's more opportunity. I landed a great horse when I went there named Hardspun, and I rode him in the Derby. If I hadn't gone to Delaware, I wouldn't have rode him. If Maryland doesn't keep up with the times, racing's going to keep declining while the other tracks progress.
Maryland's a great place to live. I've lived here for 30 years, raised my kids here. I want to stay here. It's a pay cut, though. Professionally, it's not as profitable. I thought slots would've brought a lot back. It would have got something going, got some new excitement. But there's so many tracks that have slots now so we're just trying to catch up to the other tracks now; they're already way ahead. Slots brought back a dying industry in Delaware—they'd gone about a decade without running a horse race there. And their racing industry came back through the slots. I just hope Maryland can get back in the game of being up there where it should be. And if we see it, we'll be lucky.
If you've ever been to the racetrack in Saratoga, Delaware, or Maryland at Preakness time, there's a special excitement in the air. And there's a rush, not just for the jockeys, but for the trainers, the owners, the people, the gamblers. That's what brings these people back, and that's what brings these people to keep fighting, to keep on finding that excitement."