THAT debacle at Pimlico Race Course, known as the Preakness from Hell, may yet have a salutary effect.
Rotten luck, not track ineptness, may have been to blame for the blackout that created stifling conditions for patrons and huge losses for track owners on Maryland's biggest day of racing.
Still, it brought into focus Pimlico's rundown conditions and its bleak future.
This is an industry in turmoil, threatened by Delaware and West Virginia racetracks with slot machines. Even with state aid packages ($8 million last year, $10 million this year) it is only a matter of time before Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft can't keep up.
That could mean the end of Pimlico, with thoroughbred racing consolidated at Laurel. Such a move would be devastating for Baltimore, track workers and the region's horse farms.
An even worse alternative would be for the De Francis family to shutter both Laurel and Pimlico (and the Bowie track it runs as a training facility), sell off the land and put the Preakness race on the market for perhaps $100 million.
The De Francis family turns such a small profit it cannot pay for badly needed renovations. Without a successful Preakness, there is no hope for a break-even year. And without that, the owners cannot make payments on a $29 million loan.
Not just a bluff
So it is more than a bluff when Joseph De Francis talks about the urgency of bringing slot machines to Maryland racetracks. For him, the issue is survival of his family business.
He would love, for instance, to upgrade Pimlico and Laurel with popular restaurants and virtual-reality entertainment. Drawing crowds at night would boost simulcast wagering on California races.
But it would take $15 million to put a first-class night-life complex at Pimlico. Mr. De Francis doesn't have that kind of money. Unless, he says, slots are legalized.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening won't hear of it. He has made opposition to slot machines a bedrock issue in his re-election campaign.
So what options are left?
Taking on an equity partner would help, but given the abysmal outlook for Maryland racing, it would be a poor investment -- unless the investor is counting on the eventual arrival of slots.
The other option would be an enlarged state partnership. It might make sense to increase government's investment, given the vast impact racing has on preserving farmland, the thousands of jobs at stake, the tourism boost of the Preakness and the state's historic ties to racing.
Here are some possibilities:
The state could buy the Bowie training track to support its "smart growth" program. That would give Mr. De Francis capital for infrastructure improvements.
The state could contract with Mr. De Francis to operate the training site, which now costs $2.8 million. This would free up money for marketing.
The state could redirect $8 million in lottery proceeds previously earmarked for the Ravens football stadium to boost purses of premium Saturday races. This could create the types of races that draw big crowds and profits.
For instance, Mr. De Francis has said he would love to stage a $2 million match race between the nation's best two horses, Skip Away and Silver Charm. A state racing pot could make such a dream matchup possible.
The state could make a five-year capital investment at the tracks to modernize the "backstretch," where the horses are stabled, and the general admissions area. Given previous large-scale state investments in the Orioles, Ravens, Redskins and Peabody Institute, why not a multiyear bond program for racing?
The state could maximize the potential of the Preakness and the Maryland Million day of rich races in the fall through national ad blitzes and tourism packages.
The state could invest heavily in events and races surrounding the Preakness and the Maryland Million. Why not two full weeks of eye-popping events and races at Preakness time? Why not a similar string of tourist and sporting draws surrounding the Maryland Million?
Racing could mean much more to Maryland than simply one big day each year. It has untapped potential. What is lacking is a sense of vision in the governor's office to support racing aggressively as a major state industry that needs help not just to survive but thrive.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/24/98