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Betting drops at Pimlico

The Baltimore Sun

Wagering on Pimlico Race Course races fell 16.5 percent this spring from last year, a steep drop that one racing official called "unique."

"A decline of this size is unique compared to other regions and points to the competitive influences playing out in the Mid-Atlantic," Keith Chamblin, National Thoroughbred Racing Association vice president, said from his New York office. "About one-third of Pimlico's wagering decline was directly attributable to business declines on Preakness Day. The remaining decline is likely due to a combination of factors."

The Maryland Jockey Club concluded its spring meet Sunday at Pimlico. The all-sources handle for the 31-day meet was $190.9 million, down from $228.7 million for the same eight-week period in 2007.

The Preakness, which produces the Maryland Jockey Club's biggest revenue, drew its eighth straight six-figure crowd, but with Big Brown the prohibitive favorite to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, betting numbers were off.

With one horse dominating the field, bettors wagered about $73.5 million. A year ago, with Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun making the result anyone's guess, the handle was a near-record $87.2 million.

At his Laurel Park office, Tom Chuckas, the new president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the economy and weather-related issues on weekends - which caused smaller fields when races were moved from turf to dirt - caused wagering declines.

But Chuckas did not disagree with Chamblin, who pointed to limited broadcast of the Pimlico signal - Pimlico's races were not simulcast to Churchill Downs and some tracks in Florida - because of industry disputes over Advanced Deposit Wagering as well as competition from other states.

"Pennsylvania is just the latest in a string of three neighboring states now offering rich purses subsidized by alternative gaming," Chamblin said, referring to slot machines. "Despite Maryland's rich tradition and loyal fan base, the changing landscape in three bordering states has put Maryland racing at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to competing for customers and horses."

Nationally, the pari-mutuel handle decreased 3.31 percent. Most of that decline can be blamed on surface-related issues at Santa Anita Park that caused cancellations in January and weather-related cancellations at several other racetracks this spring.

The spring decline at Pimlico follows an even bigger dip at Laurel Park in the winter, when wagering fell by 17.3 percent. But Laurel had gone from racing 71 days in 2007 to 59 in 2008.

Chuckas, who took over his MJC post last month, said the impact of Pennsylvania's slots-healthy purses also affected field sizes this spring, dropping the average number of horses in a Pimlico race from eight to seven. Bettors prefer to wager on large fields.

"With the purse levels in Pennsylvania, it's a struggle to get horses," Chuckas said. "And the Advanced Deposit Wagering issue also needs to be addressed. We were pretty fortunate on Preakness Day because the horsemen in Florida and Churchill Downs got our signal in, but it wasn't in for the rest of the meet."

To combat these problems, Chuckas said the MJC has to take a look "at broadening our thought process and investigate other avenues" for bringing people, especially younger ones, to the racetrack.

"I think the Virgin Festival at Pimlico in August is a perfect opportunity to do something," he said. "If people have a positive experience, they'll be more likely to come back to the facility. We have to use it as a tool, with passes or discounts and try to make it appealing to them to take the offered opportunity to come back.

"Some of it is trial and error, but we need to get out there and start working."

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