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.''