Over the past year, slots money has injected energy into Maryland horse racing. Revenue from the state's two casinos has bolstered purses, helping attract better horses and create more competitive races.
The Preakness also is benefiting. Some of the weekend's undercard stakes races offer larger prizes, while the long-respected Pimlico Special returns with a $300,000 purse after disappearing for three years due to a lack of prize money.
It's shaping up to be a good running for the Preakness this year.
Ticket sales for the May 19 race are up 35 percent from last year, when roughly 107,000 people attended, said Tom Chuckas, the head of the Maryland Jockey Club. Meanwhile, corporate sponsorships for naming rights, hospitality tents and the like are up 20 percent.
"People are beginning to recognize it and it's a wonderfully fantastic day," Chuckas said.
While the pageantry — and the party — of the Preakness attracts crowds to Baltimore and millions of dollars in bets, sponsorships and television exposure, the extra financial boost from the slots largesse is welcome for an industry that has faced near-collapse in recent years.
"I love more money," said Georganne Hale, the Maryland Jockey Club's racing secretary, who says higher purses for stakes races during Preakness weekend draw more and better horses for fully fielded races, which in turn could increase wagering.
Just under two years ago, the Preakness — the Triple Crown's middle jewel — was at risk as industry infighting pitted the owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course against horse owners over the live racing schedule. The state helped broker a deal, agreeing to provide slots money to help support day-to-day track operations and keep live racing year round.
While racing officials work to find a viable business model for the sport, they say slots revenue is helping to stabilize the industry and solidify the Preakness' future in Maryland.
Put another way: A financially healthier industry means a more stable Preakness, the state's single largest sporting event. As a last resort, the state has statutory authority to seize the tracks and the Preakness by eminent domain.
"It would be hugely discouraging to just have the Preakness and not a viable horse industry in Maryland," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But slots revenue will allow that breeding and racing industry to come back, be competitive and support the Preakness."
The racing industry has long seen slots as a way to prop up a struggling sport and remain competitive with neighboring states that opened casinos years before Maryland did.
Declines in attendance and wagering hurt the Maryland Jockey Club, which lost tens of millions of dollars over the past decade. Even Pimlico, which has been historically profitable because of the Preakness and helped financially support Laurel's operations, lost money for the first time in a decade in 2008.
When Maryland voters legalized slots gambling in a 2008 referendum, they also agreed to give horse racing a 9.5 percent cut of all the revenue slots generate, up to $140 million per year.
Only two of the five casinos allowed by law — one in Cecil County and another on the Eastern Shore — are open now. A third casino, at Arundel Mills mall, is to open in June.
Combined, the two facilities have brought in $23 million in revenue for horse racing as of April. That 9.5 percent of slots money is divided two ways: 7.5 percent for race purses and 2 percent for track capital improvements.
So far, a good amount of that 2 percent has been funneled to help the financially ailing tracks as part of the deal brokered with the state to maintain a year-round racing schedule. Last year, the state diverted $3.6 million to the Jockey Club's day-to-day operations from the slots fund for racetrack improvements.
The state also authorized an additional $6 million each this year and next for the Jockey Club from racing's slots fund, provided the track operator maintains 146 days of live racing annually, among other conditions.
Meanwhile, race purses have gone up. At Laurel Park, daily prizes rose to $185,000 from $160,000 last year. Races at Pimlico this year are dangling daily purses of up to $208,000.
"When the purses increase, you have a fuller field and more competition and you also see some of the money go to the stakes races," Chuckas said.
Many of Maryland's top-tier, or stakes, races are run during Preakness weekend, which will feature 16 stakes for $3 million.
Among the races are Dixie Stakes, Gallorette Handicap and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, whose purses were increased by a combined $250,000 this year.
Slots revenue also helped revive the historic Pimlico Special, which was first won by War Admiral in 1937 and was last run in 2008 before it was put on hold due to lack of money.
After years of cutbacks, Maryland horse owners, trainers and breeders were pleased to see the race's return as well as large prizes for the Preakness undercard races.
"Bringing back the Pimlico Special and making the Preakness weekend even better than it's been is good for all of us," said Frank Vespe, a horse owner who races here and blogs about Maryland racing at http://www.thatsamorestable.net/blog/. "The better the weekend is, the better the handle will be."
With the opening of the state's largest casino at Arundel Mills expected to generate significant revenue, racing supporters eagerly anticipate a boost to the industry's funds for purses and track improvements.
Besides even bigger prizes for daily races, one racing observer envisions a higher purse for Maryland's grand horse event. The Preakness Stakes has offered a $1 million purse since 1998, which is the same as the Belmont. The first leg of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, is a $2 million race.
"It would seem logical once you have the revenue streams flowing from the next location to look at the Preakness purse and maybe bump it to some level," said Timothy Capps, a former Maryland Jockey Club official who is director of the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program in Kentucky. "Whether it's $2 million or not, you have to see what the revenues are."
Alan Foreman, the longtime attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, was more cautious.
"Obviously, the slots revenue is designed to enhance the overall year-round racing program here," he said. "I can't predict what the horsemen and the track would do with respect to the Preakness race."
Foreman noted that the Preakness draws top horses regardless of the prize money because of the race's prestige.
"It's a coveted trophy," he said.
Preakness fast facts:
•Ticket sales are up 35 percent over last year, when 107,000 people attended.
•Corporate sponsorships are up 20 percent from last year.
•Purses for the Dixie Stakes, Gallorette Handicap and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes were increased by a combined $250,000 this year.
•For the first time since 2008, the historic Pimlico Special will be run.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun