Families flocked to the track in the summer, some forced to wait in line for space to open up in the picnic area, which has room for 4,000. And even on a chilly Saturday afternoon in November, young children and their parents crowded trackside to watch the first race of the day.
The scene is one for Maryland’s thoroughbred tracks to envy, and Monmouth’s path to attracting larger crowds and more bets could be one to emulate.
Industry leaders in the state acknowledge the need for fundamental changes to save Maryland’s storied, but foundering, racing culture by attracting better horses and new generations of fans accustomed to 21st-century entertainment.
“You can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results,” said Bob Kulina, Monmouth’s general manager and an architect of the plan that gave the track its boost in 2010. “It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity. And we’ve all been guilty of it.”
The thoroughbred industry in Maryland and elsewhere has seen decades of decline juxtaposed against the ascent of sports like professional basketball, football and auto racing. At the same time, state lotteries and slot machines competed for gambling dollars, leaving horse racing with a thinning — and aging — fan base.
Gamblers wagered $196 million on thoroughbred racing in Maryland in 2009, down from $480 million just 10 years before.
“There’s become such an oversaturation of gambling in the United States that at some point you’re going to have to say the cow’s out of the barn. It’s gone. The window is closed,” said Marty McGee, a Kentucky-based correspondent for The Daily Racing Form and a former Baltimore Sun racing columnist. “They’re going to have to settle for some scaled-down model from what they’ve been accustomed.”
The Monmouth experiment, which Kulina said has been successful and will be sustainable with continued subsidies from slot machines in Atlantic City, centered on slicing the 141-day thoroughbred meet in 2009 to 71 days this year.
The 50-day summer calendar featured daily purses that averaged $1 million, more than three times what the state-owned track paid out the year before, and a guaranteed payment of $1,500 per horse.
Track officials were hoping for a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in the handle. It jumped 300 percent, to $8 million a day (a figure that includes simulcasting) as races with bigger, more competitive fields piqued the interest of bettors around the country.
Robert Milmore, a 41-year-old investment manager, said he has been visiting the track for 20 years and has upped his betting this year as better horses brought better odds.
“The quality of the fields has been incredible,” Milmore said before placing his bet on the first race, eventually won by Merlot Dreams.
The crowd at Monmouth that day was bolstered by a “flash mob” — more than 100 girls and women dancing in unison to Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay” between the betting windows and concession stands to the surprise of the racing fans. The event was one of a series across the country in public spaces to raise money for cancer victims undergoing treatment.
“For us, this worked,” Kulina said of the changes at Monmouth. “I don’t know if it works for everyone else. But I do know that consumers bet on good products.”
Kulina said some jockeys, trainers and owners disliked the change because it increased competition and offered fewer chances to race, worrying some that the homegrown horses would be swept aside in favor of out-of-state talent.
“The small outfits are always small outfits,” he said. “You can’t sustain an industry worrying about the bottom. You have to worry about the top.”
McGee said the Monmouth model could work as a stop-gap in Maryland, but that the tracks need slot machines to be sustainable.
Maryland Racing Commission Chairman Louis Jay Ulman said an abbreviated racing calendar would not support the year-round jobs at the tracks and the state’s breeding industry. Many return instead to the idea of a downtown Baltimore racetrack near Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, a plan that has not gained traction even after gaining the public support of a former Maryland Stadium Authority chairman in 2003.
“I think it’s a pretty big project, but at this time we need to start thinking big in Maryland,” said John Franzone, a racing commissioner and longtime advocate of the project. “If we didn’t have Oriole Park, we wouldn’t have the Orioles. If we didn’t have M&T Bank Stadium, we wouldn’t have the Ravens. We keep trying to jam a square peg in a round hole, and it doesn’t work.”
Outdated, too big, unfriendly
Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, the two thoroughbred tracks owned by the Maryland Jockey Club, are outdated, too big and too unfriendly, advocates of a new track said.
“You go to Laurel and Pimlico for lunch, it’s not very pleasant,” Ulman said. “It’s hard to put a Band-Aid on something that’s that old and dilapidated.”
Consolidating the state’s racing operations at a new track would cut costs, Ulman said, and allow for the addition of a wish list full of new amenities.
Supporters want less seating — Pimlico seats 15,000 and Laurel seats 5,000. And they want luxury boxes like those in modern sports stadiums, dining and retail options and entertainment to keep spectators busy for the 25 or 30 minutes between races.
Many argue for lights to make night racing possible, a change many horsemen oppose because the late hours would butt up against their early-morning routines of caring for their animals.
But to keep the tracks viable on weekdays, Franzone said, “There’s no other way.” Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, this year added permanent lights to its track to allow for night racing.
“During the week, you just have to run at night,” Franzone said. “You’ve got to change with the times.”
Tom Bowman, a farm owner and president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said there are many lessons the horse industry can learn from other sports.
He said horse racing could develop minor and major leagues, with horses earning their way into the premier races. Bowman said one of horse racing’s biggest problems is its failure to market itself and its characters, both human and equine.
“People were talking about [Breeder’s Cup favorite] Zenyatta in the lines at the food store before the event,” Bowman said. “And people watched the event not because of the $5 million purse. It was all about the accomplishment of the athlete. We’re not telling those stories.”
‘Fantasy stable’ game
One solution he suggested was creating a “fantasy stable” game like fantasy football or baseball to entice younger fans to follow their favorite horses throughout the year.
“Tell me my 16-year-old granddaughter who rides horses wouldn’t be just as excited by that as fantasy football,” Bowman said.
The immediate future of thoroughbred racing in Maryland is clouded by discord among the corporations holding the reins. The parent companies of the Jockey Club have radically different visions for the tracks in 2011. MI Developments Inc. head Frank Stronach said he wants to maintain a racing calendar of about 146 days next year, while Penn National Gaming Inc. prefers a meet of 40 days at Pimlico and the end of live racing at Laurel.
“The future of Maryland racing is going to depend a lot on how it shakes out for the ownership of Laurel and Pimlico,” said J. William “Bill” Boniface, general manager of Bonita Farm in Darlington. “We can hardly maintain the breeding and training industry in the state with just 40 days of racing in the state. It’s ludicrous to think that would happen.”
Slot machine gambling could be a boon to thoroughbred horse racing, though not as much perhaps as if the terminals were part of Pimlico or Laurel.
Seven percent of the revenue from Maryland’s slot machines will be used to bolster purses and promote breeding in the state, and another 2.5 percent will be put aside to match investments in improving the racetracks.
The state expected to have $59 million a year for thoroughbred purses and another $7 million for the breeding fund in fiscal 2013, but the largest casinos have hit snags in their development. In little more than a month of operation this fall, the state’s first casino, at Perryville, generated $940,000 for the purse and breeding fund.
Ulman said the state should consider reallocating some of the slots money to subsidize racetrack operations directly.
“If one of the top employers in the state was closing up and moving to California, the state would do everything it could to try and keep them,” he said. “People don’t realize the extent of the economic impact that racing has. The tentacles just stretch out and employ a heck of a lot of people.”