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Pimlico's per-day handle drops during longer Preakness meet

With a new long-term racing deal in place, increased breeding activity in the state and planned improvements to Maryland's two thoroughbred tracks, horse racing seems to be barreling toward a brighter future in a state where it had once been so important.

Bettors have been slower to catch on, though.

Total handle at Pimlico Race Course for the 36-day meet increased 12 percent to $188 million, the track announced Tuesday. But the per-day handle dropped 12 percent,  from $5.2 million to $4.6 million, thanks in part to seven racing days added so that the meet would span the entire length of the Triple Crown.

“What we need to do is increase the marketing and advertising for those weeks after Preakness to get people out to the track,” Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas said. “They’re more accustomed to us ending racing right after our big race.”

Chuckas made the call to keep running at Pimlico through the Belmont – held June 8 this year – for the first time since 2008 largely for symbolic reasons, but it also helped increase the amount of money wagered on imported races 30 percent.

Added races stemmed the trend of fuller fields, though. In 2012, an average of eight horses ran in 302 races during the Pimlico meet; this year, that number dropped slightly to 7.6 in 359 races.

Growing purses made possible by slot revenue subsidies are expected to continue attracting horses and trainers to Maryland, and breeding activity should rebound, thanks to a 10-year deal to ensure racing in the state and a recently revised breeder’s incentive program.

“Ultimately, we’re going to need to keep increasing the quality and quantity of horses in our races to attract bettors,” Chuckas said.

Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, accounted for $54.15 million of all wagering at Pimlico despite featuring a prohibitive favorite in Orb. The 13-race card that day generated $81.75 million, and the Black-Eyed Susan card, which also featured 13 races, had a handle of $12.5 million the day before. Chuckas envisions an expanded infield concert program and larger crowds that Friday, but also must draw more fans on other weekends.

The other 34 racing days averaged a $2.75 million handle, which exceeded the $1.9 million on average wagered through Laurel Park earlier this year.

Chuckas said the jockey club, which has operated at a deficit in recent years, needs to find a way to increase handle. But it has not contemplated backing out of the long-term deal brokered with the horsemen's and breeders' associations; the track can do so if handle drops at a specified rate.

“We’re on pace right now with where we need to be on that front,” Chuckas said. “We just need to keep moving forward.”

While racing in Maryland won’t resume until September, Chuckas faces a busy summer overseeing $15 million in improvements planned for Laurel. As stipulated by the 10-year deal, he must build 150 new stalls there. But the project involves expanding to an undeveloped piece of land that must be connected to the track area by a tunnel built under an existing road. Construction has not begun, and the jockey club is still working to apply for all necessary permits. Originally slated for completion in late December, Chuckas acknowledged the possibility of further delays pushing that time line back.

Some horsemen, stung by past promises that were not kept by jockey club owner Frank Stronach, have expressed concern that the stalls will not be built and the 10-year deal will dissolve. But Chuckas said the company remains committed to improvements outlined in a letter to the state earlier this year. A racetrack renewal fund made up of slots revenue will provide the jockey club with more than $100 million in matching funds over the next 16 years, and Chuckas has already outlined a major overhaul at Laurel and hinted at the same for Pimlico.

Maryland Racing Commission chairman Bruce Quade plans to discuss ways to solidify the 10-year-agreement at the group’s monthly meeting next week. The horsemen’s association took offense to what they felt was a hastily-passed new breeding program at the May meeting, and Quade hopes that arranging for regular meetings between all factions involved in the industry will improve communication.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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