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Promoters hope events like Black-Eyed Susan Stakes can increase horse racing's popularity

When veteran local thoroughbred trainer Jose Corrales looks into the grandstand during races and sees empty seats staring back at him, he admits he gets a "little depressed."

Then he goes home, turns on a baseball game and sees the stadium is packed. His depression for his sport deepens. That is why Corrales and others who have devoted much of their lives to horse racing are looking forward to the next two days in Baltimore.

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Though the trainer of Preakness entrant Bodhisattva won't have any fillies running in Friday's $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, he knows how important the prelude to the middle jewel of the sport's Triple Crown has become to the financial viability of Maryland racing.

"This game, we cannot let it die," Corrales said Thursday. "People love animals and horse races. I love to encourage young kids and young people into [loving] this sport. We need to be able to be able to continue in whatever way to get it going. These events with the entertainment and everything are very good."

It is why Belmont Park, which annually runs the danger of being either a mosh pit of humanity or a virtual ghost town depending on if there's still a possible Triple Crown winner, will introduce its own version with the first Belmont Stakes Festival next month in New York.

"Whether they're your loyal fans or casual fans or someone completely new to the sport, it's all about getting them in the door for a great day of racing and entertainment and then having them say, 'Wow, I'm going to come back again,'" said Lynn LaRocca, who was hired last May as chief experience officer of the New York Racing Association.

Not every racetrack can be Churchill Downs, hallowed ground for those who have grown up following the sport and a top-of-the-bucket-list destination even for those who don't know the difference between a bridle and a bridal shower or think the first Saturday in May is close to Cinco de Mayo.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said building up the interest and purse in Friday's card for Black-Eyed Susan Day is "very important" to the success of the entire event.

Though Jockey Club general manager Sal Sinatra came "close" to getting last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome to return for this year's $300,000 Pimlico Special — the last race on Friday's card — Ritvo said fans who show up for what is billed as the "Ultimate Girls Day Out" might want to return for the main event Saturday.

"We're trying to increase the attendance on Friday to get people who haven't had the special experience on Saturday," Ritvo said.

Part of that attraction is a $10 entrance fee that, aside from the race card, will include five bands.

"It's about growth, it's not a revenue-maker," said Ritvo, who has been with the Stronach Group for six years.

Still, Ritvo said the seemingly perennial perilous future of racing — not just in Maryland, but nationwide — can't simply be geared to the slick marketing of "two days or two months a year. It has to be year-round."

"There's other days. There are other events," Sinatra added. "People do an outstanding job on Preakness. We need to harness that and make other big days."

Sinatra said he would like turn the Pimlico Special into a Grade 1 race again, get the handle on the Maryland Million from its current number of around $2.5 million back to $7 million, and has other ideas such as a College Day with scholarship raffles or even a Madden video-game college tournament.

These are some of the same issues facing LaRocca heading into the Belmont Stakes. LaRocca said she looks at the way more mainstream sports market their big events, such as the NFL Draft and the NBA All-Star Weekend, and believes that horse racing needs to market itself similarly.

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"You say, 'What can we do to make these two or three days as great as possible?" LaRocca said. "Let's face it. Consumers want more for their dollar every day. They're in control and they are demanding experiences. If you look at thoroughbred racing in particular, if you have one stakes race on one day, they may not be enough for your consumers nowadays."

Many of those fans will be coming to Pimlico the next two days, looking for a pleasant experience rather than simply a big payday. Then there are those whose lives are measured in 1 1/8-mile increments, as Robin Graham's will be Friday.

Ever since the Laurel-based trainer's 3-year-old filly Gypsy Judy won the Wide Country Stakes on Feb. 16, Graham has been pointing toward Pimlico.

"I've been thinking about the Black-Eyed Susan all along," she said. "There's always a turf race to go in, but there's only one Black-Eyed Susan."

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