Racing elite ponders what might have been

Though the General Assembly debate over slots was dominated by doom-and-gloom predictions about the future of horse racing in Maryland, Saturday's 128th running of the Preakness Stakes is hardly likely to be the last at Pimlico Race Course.

With the Preakness tradition dating back more than a century and state legislation passed 18 years ago, any attempt to move the second leg of the Triple Crown out of Old Hilltop would face significant, if not insurmountable, hurdles, say track owners and others in the horse industry.

Nevertheless, when Maryland's horse racing elite gather Saturday, many will be mourning the celebration that might have been had Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's slot machines bill passed.

Equine interests would have been able to look forward to a steady flow of money into Maryland's purse fund, fattening prizes and stabilizing the ailing racing industry. The future of the Preakness in Baltimore would not be in question.

"It would have been a party of worldwide repute," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, derailed Ehrlich's slots legislation in committee by saying it needs a year of study.

Now, said Evans, the Preakness is "going to be more like a wake than a horse race."

People in the industry are worried about the future of racing in the face of slot machine-subsidized competition from neighboring states. Ehrlich shares that concern.

"The state of horse racing is not healthy," the governor said this week. "The day after the Preakness, all concern for horse racing seems to cease."

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club, has been raising the possibility that the Preakness could leave since 1996. But this week he said Baltimore will be home to the second jewel in the Triple Crown for at least several years to come.

"As long as racing in Maryland remains a viable business, then the Preakness will continue to be in Maryland and at Pimlico racetrack," he said.

But farther down the road, the picture starts to look murky, De Francis said. Whether the industry can remain viable is a "broader and more complex question," he said.

De Francis says he remains personally committed to keeping the race at Pimlico, which would have been allowed to install 3,500 slot machines under the bill passed by the Senate but defeated in a House committee.

"The last thing I ever want is for my family name to be associated with the loss of the Preakness from Maryland," said De Francis, whose father owned the track before he did.

The Maryland Jockey Club is now owned by Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp., which has kept De Francis on board as chief executive of the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks.

Magna has publicly pledged to keep the Preakness at Pimlico, and to invest $15 million in improvements at Pimlico and Laurel. So far, Magna has given priority to renovations at Laurel.

Aside from tradition and promised investments, the Preakness is tightly bound to Maryland by a 1985 law that cut the state's taxes on horse racing.

If the owner of Pimlico were to sell the rights to the Preakness to an out-of-state track, its taxes would revert to pre-1985 levels, making it "completely impossible" to do business in Maryland, De Francis said.

The law gives Maryland the right of first refusal to purchase the rights to the Preakness and would allow the Maryland Racing Commission to revoke all of Pimlico's racing days if the Preakness were moved, De Francis said.

Those protections were not enough to prevent lobbyists from suggesting that the future of the Preakness in Maryland depended on the outcome of the slots debate, said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. Gladden, whose district includes Pimlico, dismissed such claims as "horsewash."

"The Preakness, I don't think, is going to go anywhere even if we don't get slots," she said.

Alan Foreman, counsel of the horsemen's association, said the Preakness will likely remain a "protected day" regardless of future industry trends, though nothing is certain.

"You never know," he said. "Who ever thought the Colts would leave Baltimore?"

In fact, industry changes have forced the Preakness to leave Baltimore before. In 1890, the race was run at a track in New York, and it didn't return to Pimlico until 1909.

Foreman said people have a good time at the Preakness but can't help noticing the conditions at Pimlico. "They can feel the decline and they can see the decline," he said.

Richard Wilcke of the department of equine business at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, said the Preakness is the only thing that keeps Pimlico economically viable.

Wilcke said he does not believe the leaders of the racing industry, which depends heavily on the Triple Crown and its traditions, would accept any effort to move the Preakness out of Maryland.

A move to Laurel, however, could be a different story. Wilcke said Magna might someday try to consolidate its Maryland racing business at the Anne Arundel County track.

"The only way they could move the Preakness is if they say Pimlico is totally beyond salvation," Wilcke said. "My gut feeling is, they'll try to make a go of it at Pimlico."

One obstacle to such a scenario is that Laurel would require a significant expansion to accommodate the crowds of 100,000 or more that gather yearly for the Preakness.

That is one reason some industry representatives still hope that slot machines will be the salvation of the industry, Pimlico and its most famous race. Even though Ehrlich has said that he will not lead the charge for slots next year, Busch has promised not to stand in the way if the House study this summer leads to a consensus plan.

"The sense is that slots will be on the table," Foreman said.