In which we analyze the state of the racing industry. Part 1 of 2. (Featured image by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.)
On April 14 — Wild West Day at Pimlico — a few cowboys “herded” some cattle, who wandered lazily down the stretch. It was an odd scene and, to most in attendance, a baffling way to promote horse racing at one of the sport’s great historic venues.
Later that night, the eyes of the racing world turned to Charles Town — yes, Charles Town — as a top-class field came in for the $1 million, Grade 2 Charles Town Classic.
And one local horseman turned to another and said, “There’s a million dollar race at Charles Town tonight, and we have bulls walking on the racetrack. What is going on here?”
What was going on probably is the same thing that’s been going on in Maryland for most of a decade: an industry that has lost its hold on the public — and its way — trying to regain its stature.
In 2003 the great racemare Xtra Heat closed out her glorious career by zipping through a dense fog to defeat Carson Hollow and five others in the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie Handicap. Bettors poured more than $897,000 into the win, place, show, exacta, and trifecta pools on the Fritchie that day.
By 2012, the Fritchie — still one of the highlights of the Maryland racing calendar — attracted wagering of less than $300,000: almost precisely one-third of what it had been nine years earlier.
Unfortunately for the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), which owns the racetracks, and for the state’s horsemen, breeders, fans, and bettors, the Fritchie was hardly an outlier. In just the five-year period from 2006 to 2010, wagering on live racing at Laurel and Pimlico dropped by 55 percent, falling from more than $600 million to just a shade over $270 million, according to figures published by the Maryland Racing Commission.
One of the proposed solutions to racing’s economic woes beloved by some commentators — and anathema to horsemen who have bills to pay — is less of it: to reduce the number of racing days. But while Maryland has done that, it has not stanched the bleeding. As recently as 2001, the state’s two major tracks hosted 221 days of live racing. It was still 184 days in 2006, but by 2010, that number was just 140 days, a decline of nearly 24 percent in just five years (and nearly 37 percent in 10 years).
Even so, during the period from 2006 to 2010, the average daily handle of the two tracks plummeted by 41 percent. And although handle declined significantly nationwide during this time, Maryland racing nevertheless saw its market share decline nearly in half.
Of course, all of that is bad news not only for the horsemen but also for the racetracks. Laurel and Pimlico were profitable through the first part of the 2000s, but in recent years their books have become seas of red ink. In 2010 the tracks lost about $20 million, according to the Baltimore Sun. In 2011 that number was reduced to $5.3 million — in no small part because of subsides totaling more than $5 million from the state and from the horsemen. That sea of red ink has led to, among other things, a decline in the quality and consistency of medication control and other regulation in the state, resulting in what one attorney called, in a case before the state Racing Commission, “complete regulatory anarchy” on the backside and yet another black eye for our industry.
BREEDING INDUSTRY STRUGGLES
The industry’s struggles at the betting windows are mirrored in its breeding statistics.
The state’s breeding industry was known for its innovation. Maryland was the first state to create a state-bred program. And its Maryland Million Day, for Maryland-sired horses, was the nation’s first such program.
You can see the results in the names of the stallions that stood here and the racers born here: Northern Dancer at stud, Cigar, Derby-Preakness winner Kauai King, among many others. And the fabulous crop of 1980 included Preakness winner Deputed Testamony, Belmont winner Caveat, and Dixieland Band, who bested those rivals in the greatest Maryland Juvenile Championship of all.
That was then. Now Maryland’s once top-flight breeding industry struggles to keep up. The size of the foal crop has declined from more than 1,700 in 1991 to 474 in 2010, and reports are that the 2011 crop will number less than 300. Whereas more than four percent of the nation’s foals were once Maryland-breds, that number is now about 1.5 percent.
The regional sire lists were once the exclusive property of Maryland stallions. Breeders from around the region flocked to the state to breed their mares to sires like Allen’s Prospect, Not for Love, Two Punch, Polish Numbers, and Carnivalay. These days, the high purses, rich breeder awards, and year-round racing available in Pennsylvania have made that state the region’s top breeding locale.
Remarkably enough, given inflated purses increasingly available, the top six all-time earners among Maryland-breds — and nine of the top 10 — were born before 2000. Four were born in the 1980s. By contrast, four of the top 10 Pennsylvania-bred earners were born in 2001 or later, and only two were born in the 1980s.
Part 2 to follow tomorrow.