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

governor Thursday.

”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

days.

”You cut out all that live racing, that would put a lot of

people out of work,” Maryland-based trainer Mike Trombetta

said.

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.”

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