Preakness host Maryland's horse racing in optimistic state

Allowing casinos has led to an infusion of money and optimism for an industry that had appeared in decline.

BALTIMORE — It is difficult to be at the Preakness this year without feeling a tinge of jealousy. That is especially true if you are just a few days removed from a visit to the current dungeon of California racing, a.k.a. Hollywood Park.

All signs here point to a racing boom. All signs at Hollywood Park point to the exits. New brick and mortar are coming and the place will feature tracts, not a track.

Not that long ago, Maryland was in a similar place when it came to its thoroughbred industry. It had the Preakness — Saturday's running at Pimlico will be the 138th — and little else, other than declining numbers in breeding, race fields and purses. There were even murmurs of this middle jewel of the Triple Crown going elsewhere, despite its long and storied history.

A recent article in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine nicely summed up the numbers.

"From 1991 to 2011," the article said, "mares bred in Maryland dropped from 2,782 to 541, a decrease of 80.6%." It also reported that its North American foal crop ranking in that same time slipped from 4.2% in 1991 to 1.5% in 2011.

Those numbers were there to illustrate the bad days. In Maryland, those apparently are past days.

Tom Bowman, president of the state's breeding group, has the article's keynote quote: "People have a renewed sense of optimism here," he said.

Ah, what a difference a few slot machines can make.

As California did over the last decade, racing in Maryland attempted to somehow capture, or partner with, the popularity of casino gambling. Maryland, minus any casinos, was surrounded by states that allowed casino gambling and had tracks called racinos, homes to both kinds of gambling. Slowly, horsemen began packing up and heading for Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Like California horsemen, Maryland fought hard from every angle to get in the game. It was a tough sell, always will be. My daughter lives in Baltimore and had her picture appear in a local paper, taken with my granddaughter next to a sign on their front lawn that said "Tots Against Slots."

But the political climate changed here and in 2008, a referendum allowing a small number of casinos passed. That number will grow to five with the addition of a casino near Baltimore's Inner Harbor next year and another in Prince George's County in 2016. Part of that deal brings a revenue supplement to the tracks. In the last three years, that has meant $50 million to purses and $15 million more to a fund geared to capital improvement at the tracks.

The latter apparently means that they might finally put some new paint on the walls at Pimlico. As a facility, Pimlico makes Hollywood Park look like the Palace of Versailles.

But Maryland took it further than just cashing the casino checks, and here's where California needs to sit up and take notice. Maryland's horsemen — breeders, trainers, track officials — signed a 10-year agreement late last year on racing dates and capital improvements.

Another telling statistic: Since the slots started contributing to racing in Maryland, the average daily purse went from $160,000 to its current $250,000.

Maryland racing moves forward now, on the same page, and with funding. What a novel concept. The last thing California horsemen agreed on was that Zenyatta was a good horse.

California tried hard on slots for a while too. Its situation differed in that it was dealing with established, and already lucrative, Indian casinos. Had the 2004 initiative put together by racing passed, rather than being trampled under by the Indian casino lobby, it would have produced similar large revenue boosts to California racing. But the public never totally understood the initiative, the ballot description doomed it and California racing, badly defeated, went back to its hallmarks: infighting and greed.

There was another active bidder, confirmed by two sources this week, when Churchill Downs sold Hollywood Park to the land development company that recently announced it was closing down the racing. That bidder was an Indian casino. Hindsight is easy, but had that buyer gotten more of an audience, California racing would have gained a gambling business partner, rather than one whose business was bulldozing and building.

So the current perception is that Maryland racing climbed the wall, while California was thwarted halfway up. The further perception is that in California people are too busy fighting with each other to get back on the wall.

Arguments can be made that betting numbers are up. But there is nothing about an empty racetrack on any Thursday afternoon or an underwhelming crowd on any big stakes day that counters those numbers. Off-site betting is not, and never will be, the salvation of racing.

Maybe the disappearance of Hollywood Park and its white-elephant status will be a good thing. Maybe David Israel and his California Horse Racing Board will make the future clear in its crucial meeting in Sacramento next Thursday, where Hollywood Park dates will be divvied up.

Or maybe they should hire a consultant from Maryland.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

CHICAGO

More