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The newest thing in Maryland horse racing: optimism

EquestrianFinancePreakness StakesExecutive Branch

The Kentucky Derby winner and oddsmakers' favorite for the Preakness Stakes isn't exactly a Maryland horse, but he's close — Orb is partially owned by a Baltimore County businessman, and his sire spent some time in Harford County. Attendance at Saturday's races might or might not set an all-time record, but it's bound to be close — top-flight music acts, it seems, are a bigger draw than BYOB debauchery. The weather may not be perfect, but it will be close — the latest forecast is for a high of 72 but with a slight chance of showers. And it may not be the governor presenting the trophy to the winner — he has a family obligation — but it'll be close. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown will be filling in. All in all, Saturday has the potential to be about as good a Preakness day as you'll see.

That's appropriate for a Maryland horse racing industry that has regained its confidence after years — perhaps decades — of uncertainty. A 10-year agreement between the horsemen and the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, promises an end to the annual threat of reduced race days and sets up a revenue-sharing agreement that should ensure that the tracks no longer operate at a loss. The state's thoroughbred horsemen struck a deal with Rosecroft Raceway over simulcast rights that ends a years-long standoff that had been expensive for both sides. The increased stability in the industry has already led to a modest uptick in breeding activity here.

And perhaps most crucially, Maryland's slot machine gambling program is now running in earnest, which has meant more than $53 million so far in horse racing subsidies and will provide more than $100 million over the next 16 years in matching funds for capital improvements at the tracks. Frank Stronach, the Canadian businessman who owns the Maryland Jockey Club, told The Sun's Chris Korman last week, "We're going to put money into it and we feel great that Maryland has put a deal in place that allows us to look to the future."

Ten years into its relationship with him, the Maryland horse industry has learned to take Mr. Stronach's promises with a grain of salt. He did, after all, promise a major overhaul of Pimlico and Laurel as soon as he bought the tracks, but nothing has happened. Still, there's reason to think this time will be different. The jockey club is required to file plans with the Maryland Racing Commission to show how it plans to use the capital improvement matching funds, and it has already stated its intentions for Laurel. The jockey club plans to turn the track into a mixed-use property including a hotel and retail and to construct a new clubhouse and stables. It has also outlined plans for new barns and grooms' quarters at Pimlico, and although it has acknowledged the need for a major overhaul to the grandstand and other public facilities there, it has yet to reveal its plans.

It needs to get that right. We need a track befitting the second leg of the Triple Crown and befitting the storied history of Maryland horse racing. Pimlico has not seen any substantial upgrades in a generation, and it does not represent the industry or the community as well as it should. The 10-year agreement and the improved marketing of the Preakness provide time for the jockey club to work with the Pimlico community, the city and the state to develop a plan that can make Baltimore a showcase for horse racing again.

There are some other obstacles ahead for Maryland's horse racing industry. A shortage of foals in recent years, perhaps related to the lingering effects of the recession, will increase competition regionally for quality horses. Early data from the state gaming commission suggests that the advent of table games has siphoned away some of the market for slots — a problem for racing because it gets subsidies from slots but not table games. And an alarming increase in horse deaths at tracks here and elsewhere has cast a pall over the entire sport. The Maryland Racing Commission has taken steps to increase monitoring of horses, adopt medication standards and require necropsies on horses that are euthanized, among other measures. It also needs to look at how racing's changed economics in the slots era has altered owners' incentives in a way that could put horses at risk.

But Saturday is a day to celebrate everything that is going right with Maryland racing, and for once, that's not much of a stretch. Racing fans can go to Old Hilltop, don their sun hats, sip their Black-Eyed Susans (or chug bottomless mugs of beer), place their bets, cheer the horses down the home stretch — and feel confident that they'll be able to do the same thing next year and for many more to come.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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