It's two minutes to the third race at Pimlico on a hot and lazy weekday afternoon.
The grandstand has only a handful of horseplayers poring quietly over their racing charts, marking their choices and looking up to watch the odds flicker on the giant, infield toteboard.
Empty wrappers, beer cups and discarded betting slips swirl back and forth on the cracked asphalt, as white-haired men with canes and binoculars crisscross the grounds. Many wear faded caps from long-forgotten races or out-of-state tracks.
Thoroughbred racing at the venerable Pimlico Race Course is a far cry from the sport's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s when it rivaled baseball as the nation's dominant spectator sport. Today, the fan base has grown so thin that industry leaders may have a hard time rallying support and sympathy for state aid to insulate them from what they fear is an impending downturn.
When football or baseball stadiums are debated, there is a ready constituency of avid fans to rally. Not so in racing.
A few big races bring out enthusiastic crowds, and off-track betting has attracted some new faces. But racing's day-to-day following in America is increasingly made up of older men who took up the sport during its boom days after World War II.
"A football team is easy to identify with. . . . This is a different issue. I think the fan base is out there, but it is more diffuse," said Timothy Capps, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
"I think the same rationale that applies to people wanting the Orioles and so desperately wanting football back applies to horse racing. I think people who don't go to the tracks recognize the cultural and historic importance of racing," Capps said.
At its peak, Maryland racing had a robust following. In the age before slot machines and state-run lotteries, fans flocked to short, eagerly anticipated meets at Havre de Grace, Pimlico, Bowie, Laurel and Cumberland. Opening day at Pimlico was a rite of spring, like Camden Yards' home opener is today.
Now the state's thoroughbred racing is confined to two tracks, Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore and Laurel in Anne Arundel County, which are owned by the same family and operate year-round. The exception comes each year at this time, when racing shifts to the 10-day meet at Timonium during the Maryland State Fair.
Longtime players, such as Joe O'Connor of Crofton, say the tracks in their heyday were crowded with fans playing hooky from work. Some, like him, pooled their money with friends to buy a horse.
"The war was over and our age group was getting into the horse business," said O'Connor, a 74-year-old retired surveyor.
No one complained about the food or housekeeping, which he thinks was far worse than today.
"It's been fun to me all my life; I love horses," O'Connor said. He now alternates days at the track with days on the golf course.
But the big crowds are a thing of the past. Serious players still come, some opting for the plusher confines of the track's members club or the casino-like sports palace. But their ranks have thinned.
"I know nearly everybody here," said Bob Glassmyer, looking over his shoulder at the sparsely filled grandstands at Pimlico one recent afternoon. A 50-year-old retired track worker, he said he comes nearly every day.
Once it was difficult to get a season pass to a track. "You had to know somebody. Now they give them away," he said.
Tom Aronson, an industry consultant with the Racing Resource Group of Alexandria, Va., said falling attendance is not unique to Maryland, or even entirely the fault of the industry.
"It hasn't done and hasn't been allowed to do as effective a job exposing itself to the public, so you don't have that level of public outcry. It's axiomatic that when you have gambling, then you are not going to get people to carry placards and march on city hall," Aronson said.
And claims of racing's pivotal role in the state's economy -- its boosters used to routinely boast, incorrectly, that it was the state's second-biggest industry -- don't hold up well to scrutiny.
Charles McMillion is a consultant with MBG Consulting Inc. who, as a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University, guided a mammoth study of the state's economy. He said racing is one of several businesses whose impact often is overstated by advocates.
"I'm sure racing is important to the families that have been there for generations. But from a strictly economic point of view, I can't imagine it's particularly crucial," McMillion said.
Support in powerful circles
The industry has, nonetheless, traditionally been a powerful one in political circles, and that alone may be enough to win it support.
Horse owners tend to be affluent and politically active. State campaign finance reports show that the Maryland track owners, officials and their families gave more than $80,000 to candidates the four-year election cycle that ended in December 1994.
But Gov. Parris N. Glendening noted last week that the thoroughbred tracks earned a record profit last year -- $4.1 million, according to the Maryland Jockey Club -- and the industry does not seem to have done much to reach out to the next generation of fans.
Aronson's research shows that 70 percent of fans at a typical U.S. racetrack on a typical day are men, and half are age 50 or older. Their income tends to be higher than average: Two-thirds earn more than $25,000 a year and a quarter top $50,000.
And about half of them visit a track at least once a week.
Aronson blames the lack of fans on a strategic blunder by industry leaders in the 1950s, when they worked to keep the sport off television for fear of losing business to bookies. Football, which fought to get on TV during that period, has grown into one of the most avidly followed sports in the world.
In addition, Maryland's tracks are among those criticized for ignoring fan amenities and promotions. But track owner Joseph A. De Francis says he can't afford to do more, despite big tax breaks granted the industry in the last decade.
What the state gave it also took away by adding lottery games such as Keno that have cut into the tracks' business, his supporters say. And De Francis has addressed, at the insistence of state regulators, frequent complaints about housekeeping and surly employees. But even many of the multimillion-dollar renovations to Pimlico and Laurel Park in 1987 and 1988 are beginning to look shopworn and dated.
Last year, attendance at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park totaled 2.3 million, more than the Orioles drew in any of their first 34 seasons in Baltimore.
Average daily attendance at the state's major thoroughbred tracks last year was about 8,700, including fans at Laurel when Pimlico was running and vice versa. Those numbers are skewed by the state's biggest racing day, the May running of the Preakness Stakes.
At a recent news conference, De Francis appealed for state assistance, saying his sport deserved the same deference shown the Orioles and Ravens.
Marylanders, he noted, have been racing horses since Colonial days, when George Washington brought horses up from Virginia and competed for purses of tobacco. The Maryland Jockey Club, founded in 1743, is one of the nation's oldest sporting organizations.
And the hundreds of white-fenced breeding farms across the state keep land free from development and devoted to a relatively low-polluting, scenic industry.
"Horse racing is one of the state's biggest industries. We have five times the economic impact of football and baseball," De Francis said.
Last year the thoroughbred tracks contributed $4.4 million to the state in wagering taxes and licensing fees.
In terms of jobs, a recent study by the state's Department of Fiscal Services estimates thoroughbred and harness racing and breeding directly account for the equivalent of 12,443 full-time jobs in the state.
That puts it ahead of the motion picture industry, which employs about 6,000, but below most other service businesses such as legal services, with 15,000, auto repair and parking, at 20,000, and health, the biggest, at 184,000, according to state figures.
Like all such studies, the estimate of racing jobs is inexact. Included in the count are all 320 people licensed to ride as jockeys, although not all make their livings as full-time jockeys or exercise riders.
And the 2,478 mutuel employees counted in the study include out-of-state workers brought in for the annual Preakness Day crush.
The total also includes horse owners, a group that, statistically, tends to lose money in racing. The study assumed that an owner obtains an average of 15 percent of his or her income from racing. Therefore, the 5,132 licensed thoroughbred and harness horse owners equate to 769 of the 12,443 full-time jobs.
Total and average attendance at Laurel and Pimlico since 1984, excluding OTB attendance:
Year .. .. .. .Total .. .. .. .Average
1984 .. .. .. .1,901,191 .. .. ..7,201
.. .. .. .1,916,782 .. .. ..7,887
.. .. .. .2,346,103 .. .. ..8,203
.. .. .. .2,480,962 .. .. ..8,956
.. .. .. .2,868,388 .. .. .10,506
.. .. .. .2,852,197 .. .. .10,803
.. .. .. .2,882,298 .. .. .10,917
.. .. .. .2,701,434 .. .. .10,470
.. .. .. .2,584,480 .. .. .10,175
.. .. .. .2,396,318 .. .. ..8,875
.. .. .. .2,249,552 .. .. ..9,257
.. .. .. .2,336,318 .. .. ..9,420
Pub Date: 8/24/96