Yearly Reminder of Past Glory, Present Disaster

August 23, 2010 |

No, this isn’t another rant on the current state of the Orioles…I think everyone is over that. 

I’ve just returned from my yearly trip to Saratoga Springs, NY.  My family and I make this trip every year as a reminder of how great horse racing can be.  Taking a 7 hour drive to upstate New York to watch horse racing for most sounds like hell for most, I’m well aware.  But most have no idea how truly beautiful the sport can be because the state of Maryland has let it deteriorate to a near point of no return.  25,000 fans packed the stands and lush, tree filled knoll of Saratoga Race Course this past Friday.  Many fans were enjoying adult beverages, yet I saw no fighting, flashing, beer can sling shots, or police brutality.  As the horses crossed the finish line of each race, fans were screaming because they cared about who won, not because someone looked at them the wrong way.  This is the scene at “The Spa” for 6 days a week during the 40 day summer meet.  Owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, and horseplayers alike converge on this small town just north of Albany to be a part of the best this sport has to offer. 

As lifelong fans of the “The Sport of Kings”, we travel quite a bit to witness some of the top horse racing action at tracks around the country.  The year starts on the Kentucky Derby prep race trail when we go to Gulfstream Park in Ft. Lauderdale to watch top 3 year olds compete in the Florida Derby.  Then it’s off to Old Hilltop for the Preakness.  Three weeks later we take a train to New York City to watch the always exciting Belmont Stakes.  August is the drive to Saratoga for the summer meet, then it’s off to Timonium for the State Fair.   In the fall, everyone gets back together at whatever track the Breeders Cup Thouroughbred World Championships are being held (recently it’s been Santa Anita in California, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, and Churchill Downs in Kentucky).  During the year there are numerous trips to Delaware Park, Penn National, and Charlestown…with an occasional trip to Pimlico or Laurel here in Maryland.  Now while it’s certainly not fair to compare Maryland tracks to that of Saratoga, it is a special place that has no comparison, it is entirely fair to compare our tracks to similar ones around the country…which these are supposed to be.

In the horse racing world, I run with a well traveled bunch and we all love the game.  This being said, you would expect to see us at Pimlico/Laurel on any given Saturday but this is not the case.  I’ve come to realize over the last couple of years that even if you take out the trips to Delaware/Charlestown/Penn, I still go to more horse racing tracks outside the state than all local trips combined.  I am certainly not alone in doing so. 

This is a sad reality to a once revered sport in Maryland.  A sport that once employed more than 10,000 workers and generated over a billion dollars of revenue has been left for dead by a state so concerned with it’s own political and financial agenda, that it has let an industry that has been around for over 150 years in this state just go away…literally.  Maryland once had a proud horse racing tradition that was only rivaled by the likes of Kentucky and New York.  Now, with the politicians in a 10 year holding pattern on how to take the most money from implementing slots in this state without actually doing it, surrounding states have been ahead of the curve and are taking much needed business…and tradition from Maryland. 

Long standing breeders are closing up shop or moving across state lines to take advantage of increased purses from slot dollars in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  Tracks and horses that were once considered minor league to those of Maryland are now far superior to those in this state, and they’re only growing more while we lag behind.  By the time the fight over slots is done in Maryland, it may be too late for horse racing. 

Gone are the days of taking a family to Pimlico…it’s too scary.  Laurel has put a good bit of money into their complex in anticipation of slots, but with purse sizes so low, no one wants to watch the races.  Timonium is fun, but even what had been a 10 day meet there has shrunk to 7 days in recent years.  Pimlico and Laurel have cut their racing days as well, leaving a big gap in the live racing season in Maryland that looks to go unfilled.  Purses have been so drastically cut in recent years, that only the Preakness and Pimlico Special remain as Grade I races in this state.  If the slot parlor slated for Anne Arundel County goes to Arundel Mills instead of Laurel Park, it could very well spell the end of horse racing in Maryland for good.

This isn’t to say horse racing isn’t in trouble in other states, because it is.  New York, Kentucky, and California have their own problems, but in each case there seems to be a sense of urgency to resurrect the industry.  In each case you can still go out to a track on nice day and experience the thrill of live horse racing action, kids and parents in tow, and know you’re going to have a good time.  With the current state of racing in Maryland, you’d be hard pressed to do this…and soon may not be able to even if you wanted.