The Preakness Stakes arrives at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday absent one of the event's hallowed traditions. Sure, there will be sundresses and hats, black-eyed Susans, drunken infield revelry and, in a recent addition to the bill, faux-mythological mascots. But what's missing this year is the hand-wringing about whether this Preakness will be Maryland's last.
For once, there are some signs of optimism in Maryland's horse racing industry, and not just about the marquee event on Saturday. The long-promised benefits of diverting some revenue from slot machine gambling into horse racing finally seem to be taking hold, with larger purses and better fields in the day-to-day races at Pimlico and Laurel Park. The betting handle is up, too, thanks in large part to the growth in online wagering. Slots money has also enabled the resurrection of the storied Pimlico Special, a $300,000 stakes race that will take place before the Preakness on Saturday. It had not been run for several years because of a lack of purse money. Some are even talking up the idea of the Preakness one day matching the Kentucky Derby's $2 million purse, but even as it is, the Preakness will have a full field this year, and both attendance and betting could approach all-time records.
The Maryland horse industry is by no means approaching a return to its glory days, but the signs of stability come at a crucial moment. The state's horsemen have been engaged in a two-year tug-of-war with the owners of Laurel and Pimlico over the number of racing days, and each of the last two winters has included a threatened shutdown of the industry. The state has stepped in to allow some money that was supposed to go to racetrack capital improvements to go instead toward operating expenses, and there are growing rumblings in the legislature about cutting off the racing subsidies altogether. Between funds for purse enhancements, incentives for Maryland horse breeders and the capital funds, the tracks get 9.5 percent of slots revenue, up to $140 million a year. If that's not enough to save racing, some lawmakers figure, why bother?
In truth, the industry isn't getting anywhere near $140 million a year from Maryland slots revenue, at least not yet. Because the state's slots program is not fully off the ground — only two of the five authorized casinos are open, with the largest yet to come — the horse industry has gotten about $22 million since the first slots parlor opened in October 2010. That figure should grow rapidly once the Maryland Live! casino opens at Arundel Mills mall this summer; it will eventually have more than twice as many machines as the two existing locations put together and a much better location between Baltimore and Washington. Although the one-time owners of Laurel and Pimlico spent millions to fight the Arundel Mills casino, it will provide those tracks with the biggest financial boost they have seen in years. Worries that the casino will compete with Laurel Park are overblown; the market for slots is very different from that for horse betting.
There are potential clouds on the horizon. The horsemen have not worked out a long-term deal with track owner Frank Stronach over racing days and other issues, and talks about developing a long-term business and marketing plan for the industry have yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the racing industry in general is under heightened scrutiny, particularly over safety issues. The New York Times published an investigation last month documenting a significant rise in fatalities among racehorses at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The deaths, the paper reported, came in the period since a casino opened at the track, enriching purses and providing owners with an incentive to race horses that were injured, and they were mirrored at similar facilities in other states. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation and has ordered a halt in payments from the casino to the track owners. Maryland, which has generally enjoyed a clean reputation in the racing world, has not seen those sorts of problems, but the state's racing commission will need to closely monitor the industry to make sure slot machine economics don't put horses at risk.
On Saturday, however, Maryland's horse industry deserves to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy its moment in the sun — with a newfound confidence that it won't be its last.