High stakes between tracks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THEY'RE ONLY an 80-minute drive apart, but there's a world of difference between Delaware Park and Pimlico. While both thoroughbred operations struggle to attract fans, Delaware Park has what Pimlico sorely lacks: slot machines.

Two thousand of them sit in a gleaming palace beneath the near-empty grandstand. Ten thousand people a day, on average, visit this gambling mecca. Only two or three hundred people show up on weekdays to follow the horse racing action next door.

At Delaware Park, horses are secondary. Gamblers dream of hitting triple 7s, not the daily double. It's a bonanza for the track's owner.

Pimlico draws a bigger racing crowd, but even on a recent Wednesday when 2,800 show up, the cavernous 14,000-seat track seems empty.

At Pimlico -- famed for the Preakness Stakes -- you won't find slots or other gambling. That's both good and bad.

It means the focus is exclusively on the majestic thoroughbreds that make Maryland racing world-famous. But the lack of slots also means Pimlico has no big profit-generator to offset high racetrack costs.

Unless Pimlico's owners come up with ways to bridge this gap, the track's ability to compete head-to-head with Delaware Park in the spring will be increasingly compromised.

On this, the last day of Pimlico's meet, tour the two tracks with us to see how far Delaware Park has come -- and how much Pimlico must do to catch up.

It's easy to miss the turn-off for Delaware Park Racetrack and Slots. The modest sign at the entrance road is in keeping with the understated tone of the facility.

Though it sits close to Interstate 95, 10 miles this side of Wilmington, there's a rustic feel to these 750 acres. A long, tree-lined road with manicured grass and dark-green stables among the rolling hills greets visitors.

Parking's free, whether you're headed to the 78,000-square-foot slots area or looking for four-legged excitement.

Just walk in: There's no admission charge. Except for reserved seats and a gourmet dining room, there's no "clubhouse" either. You get to roam around.

Few people take advantage of this egalitarian concept.

Slots players rarely leave their machines long enough to notice thoroughbreds galloping down the stretch. Doors leading to the 7,500-seat grandstand are just steps away, but they're rarely opened. Outside, the vast grandstand is nearly deserted.

At the racing end of the building, a few dozen fans wander outdoors to view horses at post time, then filter back inside.

There, they join 200 to 300 handicappers. This is bare-bones racetrack dM-icor: Fresh paint can't conceal the air-conditioning ducts and plumbing lines overhead or the dim lighting.

But who's looking? Eyes are fixed on rows of small television monitors broadcasting races from other tracks. Simulcasting provides the action -- and the money -- in today's racing world.

Chairs and tables face banks of monitors. The crowd is elderly, white and male, favoring cigars.

Some pause to glance out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the paddock. No wonder.

It's a mini-park, with tall shade trees, picnic tables and plenty of room to size up the horses as they're saddled for the next race.

Racing here resembles a friendly, small-time track where part of the fun is enjoying the sylvan setting.

The food is good. You can pick from nine eateries, where an oversized turkey sandwich will run you $6.95; a crab melt, $10.95.

Still, the atmosphere inside isn't uplifting. Too quiet for a racetrack.

If you want noise, wander over to the slots area. Thick carpets with vibrant colors, bright lighting and lots of noises from the slot-machine bells. What a difference.

Last year, Delaware Park's gross from "video lottery terminals" topped $100 million. Even after expenses to keep the slots running 18 hours a day, seven days a week (except for Easter and Christmas), a fat profit remains.

Some of it goes toward racing purses. That's why the caliber of horses running at Delaware Park is respectable. Weekday purses usually exceed Pimlico's.

This explains the large number of horses in most races. No short fields, as often happens at Pimlico.

What's missing are racing fans.

In this enterprise, the tail now wags the dog: Delaware Park, built by an elite group that included William DuPont Jr., opened in 1937. But the onetime showcase closed in 1982. It reopened two years later on weekends, then barely survived until slots arrived in 1996.

Now horse racing is heavily dependent upon slots players, many of whom drive in from Maryland.

In the first five months of 2000, they poured $1.4 billion into those machines. The racetrack's cut: more than $51 million.

When Delaware Park promotes itself as "the ultimate entertainment experience in the Delaware Valley," it isn't referring to horse races, but to the popularity of its 2,000 slot machines.

Horses still rule at Baltimore's thoroughbred oval. There aren't any diversions.

It's an urban track bordering a distressed neighborhood and busy Northern Parkway. Barns are crammed into the 140-acre site; rowhouses can be spotted beyond the clubhouse turn.

On this weekday, the clubhouse parking lot ($2 fee) also hosts a farmers' market. The 1,800-car lot has ample room for both. (Grandstand fans park for free, but they've got a long walk.)

For three bucks, you gain grandstand admission; $5 gets you into the clubhouse. There's not much free seating in the clubhouse, except outdoors. One floor is devoted to a terrace dining room; the top floor houses the popular Sports Palace with banks of large TV screens broadcasting races at other tracks.

Regulars frequent the Sports Palace, and it's busy. More noise and excitement are coming from this small throng than from all the racing aficionados at Delaware Park.

Good lighting, highly buffed flooring and swivel chairs with cocktail tables make for pleasant surroundings -- if you don't mind never seeing the track.

Things are more austere in the grandstand, but the bright, colorful dM-icor gives the place a cheerful look. Fresh coats of white paint have done wonders on the outside. Pimlico doesn't look half as bad as its press notices indicate.

The crammed indoor paddock, squeezed between the grandstand and clubhouse, can be viewed from either side. A handful of fans watches the saddling before wagering.

They seem swallowed up in such an enormous place. Three or four fans occupy the 5,900-seat outdoor grandstand; about the same number lounge comfortably in the 6,400-seat indoor grandstand.

Park benches at track level attract younger fans. Groups cluster in plastic chairs at grandstand TV monitors.

These are serious lovers of racing. They study charts, watch the odds change, and wait till the last minute to bet.

The crowd is a mix of elderly and 20-somethings, whites and blacks, men and women, blue-collars and white-collars. Even some kids. It's a taste of Baltimore.

Those up in years favor the clubhouse; grandstand habitues are younger, and more integrated.

If you're looking for a good meal, don't bother with the grandstand. It's got a small cafeteria and concession stands. The food in the clubhouse is tasty, particularly the $11.95 crab cake.

But 2,873 spectators can't pay the bills for stabling 700 horses, the $176,000 in purses awarded that day and the expenses involved in operating this immense facility.

While Delaware Park easily supports its racing with slots profits, Pimlico has no such fallback. Only a $10 million infusion from state taxpayers keeps Maryland track purses competitive.

A $19 million upgrade of Pimlico -- to be paid for by bettors, not taxpayers -- gained legislative approval this April. It calls for landscaped, adjacent parking; a picturesque outdoor paddock as a fan focal point; improved seating; gourmet dining; catered functions; dance bands.

Turning Pimlico into an appealing year-round attraction -- without resorting to one-armed bandits -- is the objective. It could take years to achieve, though.

Will even this be enough to compete against a slots-rich track just a little more than an hour away?

State officials -- and city officials -- need to take a hard look at Pimlico's predicament.

Short of legalizing slots, these governments could bolster the track's fortunes -- through promotions, encouraging agencies and business groups to hold functions at the facility and investing in a "crime and grime" clean-up and revival of the Pimlico community.

These governments also could help the racetrack find partners who see the potential in offering a variety of entertainment on track grounds.

Until that happens, Pimlico will be at a serious disadvantage. It's up against a Delaware racetrack with an inexhaustible supply of people eager to drop $3 billion a year into its slot machines.

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