Preakness, Pimlico must look past ‘temporary fix’
Esteemed trainer Bob Baffert always looks forward to making his
once-a-year trip to Pimlico Race Course.
”It’s my favorite leg of the whole Triple Crown. I love the
Preakness,” he said this week. ”They just roll out the red carpet
for you here.”
Unfortunately for Pimlico, Baffert is not unlike most horse
racing fans in Maryland. He shows up for the Preakness, but during
the rest of the year he’s got other places to go.
Thanks heavily to intervention by Gov. Martin O’Malley and the
Maryland legislature, the Preakness will remain a fixture at Old
Hilltop for years to come. The financially strapped horse racing
industry, which was in danger of collapsing from lack of interest,
will be subsidized over the next three years by money made from
state slot machines, according to legislation signed by the
”As far as the Preakness goes, I don’t see it moving out of
Maryland anytime soon,” Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland
Jockey Club, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Chuckas said sales are up between 17 and 18 percent for
Saturday’s race compared to last year. Yet the future of the sport
in Maryland remains as murky as a sloppy track.
”This is some tough times for us,” Chuckas said. ”The state
granted us $3.6 million this year, $6 million in 2012, and $6
million in 2013. That’s fine to keep racing going, but that’s
basically a temporary fix because the charge the legislature has
entrusted the industry is: How do you become self-sufficient? How
do you make it work?”
Therein lies the debate that has created a prodigious split
within the state’s horse racing industry.
”From the ownership’s perspective, one way to do that is to
consolidate,” Chuckas said.
The MJC wants to reduce the racing days to between 40 and 50 and
perhaps shut down Laurel Race Course. The Maryland Racing
Commission, along with representatives for the jockeys and track
workers, are adamant about keeping the current schedule of 146
”You cut out all that live racing, that would put a lot of
people out of work,” Maryland-based trainer Mike Trombetta
The answer, quite clearly, is a compromise.
”The issue becomes how to bridge the gap between those two
positions,” Chuckas said. ”It’s not going to be an easy fix. I’m
not going to deceive anybody. It will require a lot of work, a lot
of give-and-take by all parties.”
Until a settlement is reached – and it’s got to happen sooner
than later – it appears as if horse racing in Maryland will sputter
for 145 days and thrive on Preakness day.
At this point, Chuckas’ short-term goal is to bring in even more
money on the third Saturday in May.
”I think over the summer there’s going to be some serious
discussions on how we can improve Pimlico, specifically toward the
Preakness, and what we can do to enhance the experience of our
guests,” he said.
”I believe there’s an opportunity for the Preakness to generate
additional income, which in turn would flow through the rest of the
year and improve the condition of the Maryland Jockey Club,”
Chuckas said. ”To do that, there has to be additional amenities at
Pimlico. Churchill Downs has 65 skyboxes that they sell to
corporate partners and corporate sponsors. At Pimlico, I don’t have
any amenity like that.”
Chuckas has tried to make up for that shortcoming by setting up
more corporate tents in the infield. The rest of the infield
belongs to the younger generation, who have responded well to this
year’s maligned Preakness mascot, Kegasus, a rowdy centaur with
pierced nipples and a thirst for beer.
”The Kegasus campaign was targeted for the 21-35 demographic.
We got criticized for the campaign, but on the other hand people
criticize us for doing the same old thing all the time and not
getting any younger people,” Chuckas said.
The masses have responded to the lure of live bands, beach
volleyball and unlimited beer refills. That’s great, but just as
important is that they show up again before the 2012 Preakness.
”We hope that their experience will be good enough not only
from the entertainment perspective but from the horse racing
perspective,” Chuckas said. ”As we move forward, perhaps during
the year we can get some of these people to come back to Laurel,
come back to Pimlico.”
Pimlico could use a facelift to make it more attractive, but the
state’s subsidy can only go so far.
”Obviously, you’d like to improve the facilities, but how can
you improve the facilities if you don’t have the money?” said
Graham Motion, Maryland-based trainer for Preakness favorite Animal
Kingdom. ”I certainly think there will be a huge turnout on
Preakness day. I just hope racing here gets the shot in the arm
that it needs.”