Maryland’s annual celebration of its historic horse racing tradition this weekend comes amid signs that gambling revenue may finally allow the industry to prosper after decades of decline. Horses like 6-year Coater of Davidsonville are symbols of the good news to be celebrated during this annual Preakness Season. While never fast enough to even make it to the starting gate, Coater is being retrained for a new career that cares less about speed than athletic skill--and perhaps attractiveness to horse-mad little girls.
Gambling money is finally starting to pay off for the horse racing industry--even for the slowpokes, for whom a fund is being created to finance retraining. Here’s Steuart Pittman, Coater’s re-trainer and President of the Maryland House Council. “I think without money there wouldn’t be much else positive to talk about,” Pittman said. “But the money made all of the positive developments happen. It all starts with politics, unfortunately.”
After more than two decades of bitter debate, Marylanders approved slot machine gambling in 2008, and then expanded gambling in 2012. For most, the attraction was doubtless the promise of more money for schools. But gambling was also sold to voters as a life or death issue for the rapidly declining horse racing industry.
Now, thanks largely to the block-buster casino returns from Maryland Live at Arundel Mills, nearly $4 million a month is being shared with the horse industry—mostly through fatter purses for race winners. Linda Gaudet, a horse trainer and long-time board member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the results are evident. “We’ve had a big influx of new trainers and horses, and better horses coming in,” she said. “Fuller fields, the betting is up. Everybody’s optimistic from management to the horsemen to the horse breeders. We’re all looking to the future.”
The most important development was a deal reached last year between the race track owners and the horsemen that effectively guarantees year-round racing for the next 10 years. That ended the annual make-it-or-break-it negotiations that undermine investor confidence, and drove a lot of people out of the business.
At a time when Kentucky Derby winner Orb is showing off his Maryland connections, this new self-confidence for the local industry adds to the excitement. Mike Pons, who with his brother Josh runs an 80-year-old horse farm in Harford County where Orb’s sire once lived, is particularly upbeat. “Maryland racing is having a renaissance right now,” Pons declared. “It’s taken awhile for the patient on the table to come back to life, but it’s happening.”
Indeed, there is very little sign so far of the huge changes promised by the 10-year-deal. Pimlico race track is all decked for Saturday’s Preakness, but there’s no new stabling or other obvious improvements.Horse sheds at the Bowie training track, which the track owners want to close, a shabby and dilapidated. Might they renege on the deal? “You worry about that, certainly,” acknowledged trainer Linda Gaudet. “It’s pretty grandiose moving the grandstand at Laurel from one side to the other, I would imagine. I think let’s do it step by step. The first thing on the agenda is getting these barns built at Laurel, and then second at Pimlico. They are supposed to rehab Pimlico, and they should. It’s the home of one of the triple crown races and it needs to be a beautiful place.”
It will certainly be beautiful Saturday if Orb wins.