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Can Maryland horse racing gain back its fan base?

The first time I visited Laurel Park during racing season it was a bright Friday afternoon in April — the sky was gorgeous, the air was crisp and I was happy because I had the day off.

My mood changed when I walked with a friend into the darkened and practically barren grandstand. There was a eerieness about the place and — no offense to the older gents reading this — we were the youngest folks there by two generations. Thank goodness for the friendly betting agent at the counter who had the time to give us a brief schooling on how to bet on races, otherwise we would have walked right out.

The experience is not unusual as one attendee pointed out at the Maryland Horse Forum this week in Upper Marlboro. After she gave visitors a tour of her horse farm, she found out that none of them had been to the tracks because they didn’t know what to do once they got there. The problem is indicative of a theme that was talked about at length at the forum — what can horse racing do to become a part of younger people’s sports repertoire again?

(To read about how racing got to this state, click here for my story on the evolution of racing in Maryland.)

Some people suggested having roaming agents who greeted people at the door and assisted newcomers in placing their bets for the first time. Others said tracks should use more technology to hook the younger crowd such as allowing people to place bets from their seats via mobile phones or jumping on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagons to market the tracks. Or, like many pro athletes now, jockeys and trainers could have Twitter feeds.

Others pointed out the age of the facilities and said that alone was a deterrent. Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said tracks should be entertainment centers with other activities besides racing such as a movie theater, a mall or even an aquarium.

“This is what young people want,” he said. “They want a destination to go to for events.”

Making tracks and racing more fan accessible was also a hot topic. One person suggested shortening the now 20 to 30-minute wait between races because patrons get bored with the wait. Many seemed to support trying out night racing (as Churchill Downs did this spring with some success) because that gives the working crowd a chance to come.

The problem is, many of these ideas can’t be implemented until the revenues from slots starts pouring in as a portion of that money will be designated for marketing and upgrading the tracks. Despite the fact that so many people care about growing the industry here, it is still playing the waiting game more than nine months after voters approved allowing slots in the state.

Two steps forward, one step back. Do you think Maryland racing will ever be able to take all these ideas and fully run with them? Or will something always be holding it back?