While a picture-perfect afternoon greeted an announced 5,253 on the opening day of the 2008 Pimlico spring meeting yesterday - 600 more than last year's opener - the climate wasn't nearly as friendly for the recently concluded winter meet at Laurel Park.
Total wagering at Laurel this winter was down 17.3 percent from last year, dropping from $3.56 million per day to $2.943 million, according to figures released yesterday. Dropping from 71 dates in 2007 to 59 this year, all-sources handle totaled $219.8 million in 2008 compared with $291.8 million last year.
Maryland Jockey Club president and general manager Chris Dragone called it "troubling and not unexpected," with the horse racing industry struggling across the nation.
"I'm not here to make excuses - the numbers are bad," Dragone said. "I could claim the weather was bad or whatever - that's not the case - our numbers are down, and they are troubling. If you're going to ask me what I'm going to do to correct them, obviously I think the thing to do is continue to try to put more horses on the track, better the field size, and make it a better product to wager on and try to make the customer experience better to have people come out."
Dragone, who cited the struggling economy as a prominent factor, said consistently drawing people to the track is a constant challenge with new factors involved. Racing fans also have simulcast, out-of-state wagering hubs, along with Internet and telephone wagering options.
While the majority of the Maryland Jockey Club's marketing remains focused on bringing people to the race course, Dragone said it's important to look at other ways to reach the audience. One example is the club has increased its marketing budget in promoting off-track betting, which Dragone said will help increase in-state numbers.
Yesterday at Pimlico, the handle was up 7 percent from last year's opener with $2.4 million wagered on Pimlico's own card.
Jockey Erick Rodriguez won three races, the last coming aboard Sheeler in the featured $50,000 Star de Naskra Stakes. Sheeler, who went at 15-1 at the post, rallied from off the pace to cover the six-furlong distance in 1:10.08 - besting runner-up Coheed by 1 1/2 lengths. The win paid $33.