Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Resurrection through euthanasia

Andrew Beyer, columnist in The Washington Post and Daily Racing Form, has a modest proposal for "saving" horse racing in Maryland.

Euthanize it.

In a column today, Beyer says Maryland racing has slipped to the point that almost all of it is beyond saving. He proposes killing Laurel Park, stating the property is worth more if developed into something else. He believes Pimlico needs to be extensively remodeled (well, who doesn't?) and become host of an extremely abbreviated, but high-quality meeting; the kind of race-meet you see at Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar.

Beyer is accurately able to identify the problems. He's right when he says Maryland racing has suffered terribly from bad management (spelled "Magna Entertainment Corp.") and poor politics in Annapolis. Maryland legislators for so long stalled slot machine legislation that other states (namely Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania in the Mid-Atlantic market) got there first and have upgraded their racing and purse structures beyond Maryland's diminished standards. And now the government has so botched the slot machine legislation that the gaming machines will probably end up at an off-track site near Arundel Mills shopping center, greatly diminishing their ability to help Laurel, Pimlico and Maryland racing.

But do you "save" an industry that employs or sustains more than 15,000 Maryland jobs by putting most of it out of its misery?

Perhaps the Laurel property would be "worth more" developed into something else. But is it worth more to the horse racing industry and its trainers, grooms, ticket-takers, concession workers, etc., as a mall or housing development?

And Beyer's notion of an abbreviated Pimlico meeting -- he suggests April through Memorial Day -- being a "boutique" meeting akin to Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland is an idea that dwells in the starting gate and loses all chance. What he apparently fails to consider is that those meetings, which he dubs "not part of a monotonous, year-round racing grind," are possible precisely because each state still maintains year-round racing through numerous other facilities for all levels of horses and horsemen.

The three meetings he cites might be the crown jewels of each state, but to showcase them properly, the state can't melt down the rest of the crown.

If a two-month Pimlico "boutique" meeting is all Maryland offers, what horsemen does Beyer believe will be there? Philly Park, Delaware Park and Charles Town shippers? And a two-month meeting of any caliber doesn't preserve full-time jobs for Maryland's many on-track workers, nor would it be sufficient to sustain a Maryland breeding industry that once was one of the nation's more noteworthy.

Look at Virignia, where the Colonial Downs meet is pleasant and exciting, but relatively brief, held at a splendid facility, with signature races that are growing in stature, including the Virginia Oaks-G3, and the Colonial Turf Cup-G2 and Virginia Derby-G2, which are part of the Grand Slam of Grass. Yet even as these Colonial Downs races become more established, the breeding stats in Virginia -- also once a relative titan in the industry, the state where Secretariat was foaled -- have plummeted just in this decade from 92 stallions serving 641 mares in 2000, to 41 stallions serving a mere 123 mares in 2008. (In 1991, the first year of statistics available online, Virginia had 154 stallions serving 837 mares.)

A one-trick pony racing state might have the sort of "boutique" meeting that Beyer (who disparages recent Laurel Park bettors by calling them "mostly low-end customers") would prefer to attend. But even if that meeting is at a remodeled Pimlico where the horses are all worth $100,000 or more and the box seats are gilded, it would be hard-pressed to maintain the kind of steady economic impact -- and ancillary benefits, such as preservation of farms and farmland -- that Maryland should hope to get from its horse racing industry.

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