At track, celebration reigns, but future fears are unbridled


WHEN HER bay gelding, Top Of The News, kicked off the Maryland Million with a stirring victory in the first race, owner Phyllis Dixon of Bethesda issued a plea:

Let this be a day to turn off debate about what must be done to bolster the state's horse racing industry.

"All these horses come off the farms here, in Maryland. This is an important day," Dixon said.

"This is for all the people involved in the industry, from the people who sold the mare to the woman who bought her to the grooms and the trainers. We don't want to muddy the waters today. This was a day for people to come watch the races."

Her plea resonated at times yesterday. For instance, in the eighth race, for almost every single step of the 1 1/8 -mile Maryland Million turf, a 5-year-old gray gelding named Elberton was solidly in the lead.

The defending champ of this stakes race, Elberton looked like a lock to repeat as his hooves churned through the thick clumps of grass of Pimlico's turf.

But then, as Elberton led the field home, another Maryland sired and bred gamer -- La Reine's Terms -- made his move on the outside, closing like a bullet train to steal the $100,000 stakes race at the wire.

In the muggy infield, a group of spectators whooped and hollered. Le Reine's Terms trainer, Larry Murray, gushed with the kind of pride appropriate for a day everyone involved with Maryland racing anticipates:

"This is the first Maryland Million I've won. It's like winning the Breeders' Cup."

For a few rumbling seconds, courtesy of these two dueling thoroughbreds, there was a crackle of genuine suspense and excitement.

It was exactly the kind of heart-pumping reason a person would deliver herself to a race course in the first place.

The horses delivered, like they can almost always be counted on to do. There's a reason why the expression "a heart as big as a horse's" conjures not only a physiological reality of the animal's anatomy, but also its spirit and will.

If a horse wants to run, watch out.

Now for the trickier part of the equation, one that could not be ignored, despite some impassioned pleas:

What about the people responsible for the atmosphere and environs in which these equine athletes are bred and run?

No one is capable of handicapping this race, though many are eager to try.

Yesterday was billed as Pimlico's second best day of the year. It was a showcase event, even if racing in this horse-loving state has less to showcase than it should, or could, or -- for the optimistic -- one day will again.

The crowd yesterday was about as large as predicted, a little less than 16,000. And in these days of simulcast, on-track attendance is not supposed to carry much weight, even when Pimlico was offering a quality card full of 12-entry races.

Still, for a track with such rich history and the site of one of racing's premier Triple Crown events, turnout for the so-called "second best day of the year" only reinforced the perception among some racing insiders about the flagging state of Maryland racing.

"It's very sad," Lou Ulman, chairman of the Maryland Racing Association, said as he surveyed the empty seats.

"This is the second biggest day in Maryland racing and look around. This is poor. We might have more people here for the day before the Preakness, the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes."

Mincing not a word, Ulman could not wax romantic even on the day of the Million, not when he unabashedly said that Pimlico should be razed and rebuilt, "the sooner the better."

The theme of racing's future was echoed throughout the day, although the message was delivered many different ways. Industry insiders tried to walk a fine line between promoting a sport/business they love and offering an honest assessment of its troubles, as well as predictions about where it will go.

"I know the industry has been portrayed to be in dire straits. I don't know about that," Cricket Goodall, executive director of Maryland Million Ltd., said.

"We are in a very competitive market and we're dealing with an industry that's a little provincial, that's been a little left behind, like on the TV curve. That's a source of income. We need to catch up and compete and a lot of things need to change," she said.

The potential for change was certainly in the air, as supporters for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend planted campaign signs along Northern Parkway.

Townsend, towing the party line, has stated her opposition to authorizing slot machines as a revenue-boosting source for Maryland racetracks, which may explain why she elected not to press flesh with this horse-betting constituency yesterday.

That didn't stop some of her supporters from tagging behind Republican candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and holding up "Townsend" signs as Ehrlich strolled through the sparse infield toward the winner's circle for a brief appearance.

It was a weird tactic, drawing attention to Townsend's absence while promoting Ehrlich's stance on legalizing slot machines at the state's racetracks.

Despite all the attention deservedly heaped on the 162 Maryland-sired horses pre-entered in yesterday's 10 stakes races, do not think for a moment that politicians and businessmen developers were not the most important players.

The governor's race is one mammoth source of intrigue in the racing community.

The other is the sale offer tendered by the racing magnate Frank Stronach and his Magna Entertainment Corp. to purchase Pimlico and Laurel Park from the Maryland Jockey Club. The racing commission will vote on the sale Oct. 28.

Stronach's vision is to raze Pimlico, build an entertainment palace in its place and plug Maryland racing into a worldwide "soft casino" network in which to capitalize on the multi-billion industry.

It is certainly a Star Wars kind of plan -- so juiced and slick and beyond imagination.

Standing in the tired and quasi-dilapidated Pimlico grandstand, it was easy to understand why skeptics wonder how something so good, so healthy and futuristic as what Stronach proposes could arise out of the dying embers of this old-school world of horse racing.

Likewise, standing among the proud winners and the passionate losers and listening to the thunder of the horses go by, it was easy to see why so many people anxiously await what comes next.

Even on Maryland Million day, it was clear things have to change.

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