With the Supreme Court's decision this week to strike down bans on sports gambling, clearing the way for states such as Maryland to embrace wagers on sports events, officials in the horse racing industry have become like the bettors they rely on: They just hope that what comes next is a winner.
In a 6-3 vote Monday, the nation's highest court ruled unconstitutional a federal law that has prevented most states from offering wagers on sports at their racetracks and casinos. New Jersey, which brought the case to the Supreme Court, is poised to move swiftly, with Monmouth Park, a thoroughbred racetrack, announcing Tuesday that it will open a sports book on Memorial Day.
State law in Maryland allows for betting on horse races at tracks such as Pimlico Race Course, the site of Saturday's Preakness, and limited off-track betting sites. Slot machines and table games at its six casinos are also allowed. But gambling on other sports would not be allowed until a state constitutional amendment is ratified by voters in a general election.
Because a bill calling for a voter referendum on the issue failed to pass in the state Senate after moving through the House of Delegates this year, any new proposal likely will have to wait until next year. In that case, the soonest possible legalization would not be until 2020.
Horse racing could need a shot in the arm. The total money wagered at tracks nationwide has fallen from $15.2 billion in 2003 to under $11 billion, according to Equibase, but those in the industry are optimistic that the addition of betting would not divert wagers normally placed on races to action in more popular sports.
"I don't think we think it's a negative thing at all," said Tiffani Steer, vice president of communications and events for Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, among other racetracks. "I think that what it does is offer actually more for a customer. So if you want to come and wager on horse racing and wager on an NBA or an NFL game, you can do that, too. And vice versa: I think it potentially opens up horse racing to perhaps a whole set of customers who may not normally consider horse racing or come to a track because perhaps they're more attracted to traditional sports betting."
That might not be wishful thinking, either. A March survey conducted by McKinsey & Co. and published by racing outlet The Blood-Horse found that only 4 percent of horse racing bettors said they would bet less on racing if sports betting were legalized in their state.
Over half of those bettors said they already bet on sports, however, and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he would expect every horse track in the United States to add a sportsbook in states in which it were allowed to operate.
"That's a given," he said. "As soon as they get that state approval, wherever a racetrack is, you can bet you'll be able to bet on basketball and football and everything else.
"But how it affects the purses and the horsemen will be interesting because the legislature all across the country that have gaming and racing holding hands, the gaming is so lucrative that most of the legislative people say, 'We need to take more and give racing less.' That's in a lot of states already."
On Friday, Zach Shifler of Towson was at Pimlico for the first time with his friend Chad Cunzeman. They joked that most of their wagers were better off won and lost closer to home, at local casinos.
Shifler said he'd be reluctant to risk his money on a sport as unfamiliar as horse racing. He'd stick to what he knows: professional football. But it was a welcome change to even consider such a possibility of striking it rich.
"It's nice to have the options, for sure," he said. "Legally, anyway."