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State racing hits finish line a winner


Reflecting a trend at horse tracks across the country, Laurel Park parlayed a successful fall into a successful 1998. Despite six fewer wagering days, betting at Pimlico, Laurel Park and their off-track betting sites increased 2.4 percent over 1997.

"Considering the Preakness debacle and all that's happening around us, we've managed to hold our own pretty well," said Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Despite losing an estimated $2 million in wagers because of the power outage on Preakness day, the Maryland Jockey Club reported an increase in Maryland betting from $449,242,798 in 1997 to $459,826,969 in 1998. That includes betting on races in Maryland as well as in other states.

(Released yesterday afternoon, the figures in this article include the Maryland Jockey Club's estimate of wagering on the year's final day.)

Bettors continued their pattern of favoring out-of-state televised races over Maryland's live races -- even more so than in the previous year. Of the nearly $460 million wagered in 1998, $322,420,883 (or 70.2 percent) went for simulcast races, as opposed to $137,406,086 (or 29.8 percent) for live races.

Compared with 1997, that represents a decrease of 5.4 percent on live races and an increase of 5.9 percent on simulcast races.

Jim Mango, Pimlico and Laurel Park's chief executive officer, said one especially satisfying figure was the 6.7 percent increase -- from $298,709,144 in 1997 to $318,559,210 in 1998 -- on betting by out-of-staters on Pimlico and Laurel Park races.

"We continually increase that, even though jurisdictions are taking more and more signals," Mango said.

"That means there's a healthy interest in Maryland racing out there across the country."

Despite the increases in wagering, attendance at Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway decreased 2.1 percent -- from 2,003,761 in 1997 to 1,961,323 in 1998.

But the betting figures were the ones that pleased De Francis, even as he sounded his usual note of caution.

"We're like the little Dutch boy with his fingers in the dike," De Francis said. "We're still warm and dry. That's the good news.

"But we're still standing against the dike, and it could blow another leak and drown us all."

De Francis offered several reasons for the favorable wagering figures, especially during the fall: the weather, which was warm and dry; the break during the Colonial Downs summer meet, which renewed Maryland bettors for the fall; the continued healthy economy, and, finally, the strong advertising campaigns in Maryland by the racing industry and nationwide by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

"The business seems to be picking up a little bit around the country," De Francis said.

Added Mango: "I'd like to think we've run a pretty good operation this year. And it's not just us. The whole industry is doing better."

Pimlico and Laurel Park officials redesigned their simulcast presentation, which is one of the most appealing in the country. They installed a remote camera on the infield toteboard so that bettors can clearly see horses during the post parade.

And, as Mango said, "Our announcer is as good as there is in the country." The track announcer is Dave Rodman.

Also, Mango said, the improved racing at Virginia's Colonial Downs helped Laurel Park retain, or at least regain, its out-of-state backers in October when racing returned to Maryland.

In 1997, after Colonial Downs' dismal first meet, betting on Laurel Park's races suffered for about a month.

NOTES: North America's winningest jockey, Edgar Prado, finished the year with 474 victories, about 70 more than his nearest competitor, the California-based Russell Baze. Prado won yesterday's sixth race at Laurel Park with the 2-1 Smart Guy.

Coupled with his 536 victories in 1997, Prado became only the third jockey to win 1,000 races over two years.

Asked how he'd rate the year, Prado said: "I couldn't ask for better than that."

Asked what he hoped to accomplish in 1999, he said: "To stay healthy and keep bringing those horses to the winner's circle."

After riding today at Laurel Park, Prado plans on riding tomorrow at Aqueduct and Sunday at Laurel Park. Then, he plans on taking off until Jan. 15.

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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