LAUREL, Md. – The smell of hay and horse is thick in the racing stalls at Laurel racetrack. Farriers are shoeing horses, groomers are preparing their thoroughbreds and the vet is making his rounds. All the activity starts long before the sun comes up and continues until the afternoon’s first post at 12:30.
It appears all is well but it’s a scene that belies what is really happening with Maryland’s horse racing industry.
The Maryland Racing Commission says attendance is down more than fifty percent from a decade ago, and betting revenues have dropped as much as ninety percent for some tracks.
“It’s changed… a whole lot different now. The crowd don’t come no more like they used to, you know?” said Charles Brown, who groomed Maryland horses for almost fifty years. “A lot of it is ’cause, you know, they can watch races on TV at home and what have you.”
Another factor is how the labor environment has changed in America, according to Tom Ventsias, a former track reporter for the Annapolis Capital newspaper. Ventsias says because people are working multiple jobs and nine-to-five office hours, when the tracks open at noon, there are not many people standing in line with money to burn anymore.
But there are the exceptions, like Brown, who retired in 1999. He has worked with horses for decades, and still cannot stay away from the track. Although the sport’s decline has been painful to watch, Brown says he can’t stay away from his favorite part: the horses. And the betting, of course.
“Here’s what makes a good horse: a good groom, a good jockey and a good trainer,” said Brown. “If all these combine together, you got a nice horse.”
Brown, an African-American, started grooming horses shortly after tracks started removing their racially-segregated bathrooms. He’s seen a lot changes throughout the decades, but now he fears that Maryland horse racing is truly on its last legs.
According to the Maryland Racing Commission, attendance has dropped precipitously at tracks across the state since 2000–that includes both thoroughbred and standardbred tracks. Laurel, Pimlico and Timonium are the state’s remaining thoroughbred tracks. Ocean Downs and Rosecroft are the state’s standardbred tracks.
Ten years ago, Laurel racetrack had over a million people at the track; last year, it was barely 500,000.
If the numbers weren’t enough to show Maryland’s racing industry is in trouble, then a short walk around the track will provide an eyeful. Grandstands that were filled to capacity in the ’80s and ’90s are almost empty. Large sections of the stands are walled off, the seats torn up and in disrepair. Gamblers are still yelling at the horses during the race, but instead of a cacophony of thousands it’s only a couple dozen.
A drop in attendance causes a chain reaction of other problems. Less people means fewer bets. Fewer bets mean the tracks have less money to maintain facilities–or even open their doors.
When tracks cannot afford to stay open, there are fewer live racing days. That leads to a continuing drop
in attendance which creates an exponential loss of revenue.
At Laurel park, betting revenue has dropped about 40 percent, according to the Maryland Racing Commission. At Pimlico, betting revenue has fallen by fifty five percent over the past decade.
At Rosecroft, the total revenue has dropped ninety percent due, in part, to the fact the track was completely shutdown in 2010. Racing returned to Rosecroft this fall when new owners took over.
As racetracks lose betting revenue, it becomes harder for tracks to stay open. What results are fewer live racing days and more reliance on televised races.
Ten years ago, Laurel racetrack had 162 racing days. Now, there are 120. Pimlico had 109 racing days in 2001. Last year, that number was down to 20. Rosecroft had 147 in 2000. Last year, with the track closed, there was no racing at Rosecroft. But, this fall, live racing returned to the track.
Some states like Delaware and West Virginia are trying to prevent a decline in racing through the addition of slots and casino gambling.
“Slots is like a band-aid,” said Brown. “You cover a sore, and after a while you take it off and it’s the same thing.”
The battle over slots at tracks in Maryland has been waged for at least two decades.
Slot machines were approved by voters in the state in 2008. While there were rosy predictions of how much money would be generated, reality has proven otherwise with revenues coming in lower than analysts expected.
According to a report by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, the down economy has led to a 10 percent reduction of slots revenue.
But many people still frequent slot machines, and they could still help horse racing ride past these tough economic times. The Legislative Services report also states that visitors from Maryland and Pennsylvania are responsible for 70 percent of slots revenue at Delaware’s racetracks.
“The politicians, I don’t know what’s the matter with them. It’s like they’re brain dead or somethin’,” said Berkeley Kern, a farrier that shoes horses at both Pimlico and Laurel racetracks. “They want to charge you more taxes, they want to raise the gas tax, but they have millions of dollars going to Delaware, Penn National, and Charlestown… The state of racing [looks like] it’s our fault. It’s the state’s fault. Simple as that.”
Even if revenue from slots eventually meet analysts expectations, a long term solution has yet to be found that will put the state’s racing industry back on track. Currently, under the provisions of the law, 9.5 percent of total revenue from slots around the state is used to help the racing industry; the majority of the revenue is being funneled into an Education Trust Fund.
Maryland horse racing is older than the United States — the Maryland Jockey Club was founded in 1743. According to diehard fans like Vensias, if the racing industry is lost, Maryland will be stripped of perhaps its most prominent cultural and historical landmark.