Horse racing renaissance in state pulling up short Viruses, economy reduce fields, handle


When Maryland racing had its renaissance in the late 1980s, the barn areas at the three major tracks were crowded, and full fields made for interesting racing. In turn, fans bet with enthusiasm. Handle soared, and purses increased.

But a recent malaise in racing throughout the nation has not bypassed the Maryland circuit. Short fields are the rule. Handle is down 9 percent at the 58-day-old Pimlico meet. And barns at Laurel and Pimlico race courses and the Bowie training center BTC are at about 85 percent capacity, said Tim Capps, the tracks'

vice president for racing and publicity.

Other negative factors have persisted, making for a minor crisis in recent weeks at Pimlico.

According to racing secretary Larry Abbundi, a common virus among the horse population has kept some 20 to 25 percent of potential runners from being entered in recent weeks.

"They've got temperatures," he said. "[Trainers] Leslie Glazier, [Frannie] Campitelli, [Carlos] Garcia . . . even Charlie Peoples, who's stabled all by himself on his own farm, they've all told me they've had a barn full of sick horses."

Once recently, because of the scarcity of horses, Abbundi did not close entries until about 7:30 p.m. That is a very late hour -- entries close at many tracks in midmorning -- to be trying to locate trainers to enter horses, but it typified the desperation the track is experiencing in filling races.

Experts, including Capps, agree that the poor economy has led to a horse shortage not only in Maryland, but also virtually everywhere in the country. An abundance of racing compounds the problem, particularly in the East.

For example, handle at the recently ended 107-day meet at Aqueduct in New York was down 6.8 percent.

In the Delaware Valley, a three-way clash between Philadelphia Park, Garden State Park and Delaware Park has existed since mid-March. Delaware's handle is down only 3.4 percent from 1990, but at Garden State -- whose winter/spring meet ends tonight -- on-track handle was off 25 percent. And although there are no comparable figures at Philadelphia for the current meeting, the numbers are far below what would be expected under happier circumstances.

"It has been a nightmare," Steve Kallens, a Delaware official, said yesterday in reference to the fight for horses and fans.

Rumors spread last week that Pimlico soon would move from 10- to nine-race weekday cards, but, Capps said, that will not happen soon.

"We don't want to overreact," he said. "It's not something we've decided to do. We talked about it, as we have a lot of things.

"The horse shortage we are having here parallels that of the entire East Coast. What it boils down to is a reduction of ownership for economic and other reasons."

In past years, the Roseben Handicap and Sheridan Stakes have not have been simulcast to Maryland tracks. But today they are -- because although they are relatively minor $75,000 races, they help in padding a 12-race card.

The reintroduction of steeplechase racing to Pimlico, which is scheduled to begin June 16, also might be perceived as a way to fill races.

In a recent interview, track president Joe De Francis said the lack of off-track betting in Maryland has added to the stagnation of racing. But De Francis said he is optimistic about the chances of an OTB bill for 1992.

"We've had the best marketing program in racing the last five years," he said. "We've taken that as far as it will take us."

Total it up, and in racing parlance, the Maryland circuit is hardly fading in the stretch -- but a second wind definitely would help.

"In general, we have to expand our marketplace and find new owners," said Capps. "I think what we may see down the road is more regionalization, where there would be a little more use of simulcasting and cable TV to make up for the marginal losses of horses. We have to make things more convenient and attractive for people to get involved and stay involved."

NOTES: If it holds together, today's $50,000 Woodlawn Stakes for 3-year-olds does not fit the short-field pattern. A well-matched field of 9 will travel 1 1/16 miles on the turf course. . . . Little Bold John, the popular 9-year-old gelding, makes his first start in Maryland today since March 1990.

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