Maryland’s horse industry, once thought to be on life support, has rebounded. And at places like the Yearling show in Timonium, where year-old thoroughbreds strut their stuff before a judge who rates their likely racing success based on physical appearance, there’s an air of almost giddy optimism.
"We needed an influx of money and horses and new owners, and I think we are on our way," said long-time trainer Linda Gaudet.
The money came from slots at off-track casinos beginning in 2010. It was used to boost prizes for racetrack winners.
Bigger purses attracted better horses. Stiffer competition on the track drew more bettors who fattened the betting handle, which grew by almost 20 percent last year alone.
Meanwhile, the Stronach Group, a Canadian company that owns racetracks in Laurel and Pimlico, assigned two of its top managers to modernize the facilities both in appearance and operation.
With a promise to make "horseracing cool again," Tim Ritvo and Sal Sinatra have spent more than $30 million on upgrades to Laurel Park and redesigned the racing schedule to favor spring, fall and summer weekends instead of week days often accessible only to retirees.
They have also bunched high pay-off races on the same days, which means bigger crowds of bettors, said Mike Pons, whose family owns breeding and training farms in Harford county.
"It’s a huge symphony the track operators are conducting," Pons said. "But they are playing some sweet music."
Thus, Laurel and Pimlico, which were losing a combined $3 million a year when Ritvo and Sinatra arrived in late 2014, are expected to finish this year $5 million in the black. The number of brood mares has soared along with hopes for new baby prize winners.
The fate of Pimlico, the 147-year-old home of the Preakness, remains unclear. Track owners and state political leaders are pondering a price tag of more than $300 million to upgrade the creaky and outmoded structure that is shut down for most of the year.
But in another sign of what Pons calls a renaissance of the broader state horse industry, Maryland facilities have made promising bids to host two other top dollar equestrian contests.
Laurel Park, with a plush new lounge that looks like a hunting lodge, is campaigning for a turn at hosting the two-day Breeders Cup Classic, a global thoroughbred competition that rivals the Triple Crown in rich returns. Meanwhile, Fair Hill International in Elkton, hopes to become the permanent home of an annual four-star event that features show jumping, dressage and cross-country races over a four-day competition.
There’s no gambling but the event could attract lots of tourist dollars.
Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, says the two bids illustrate how various elements of the Maryland horse world are connected and collectively on the rise.
"So it’s all very integrated, and it’s really quite wonderful," he said. "It’s a huge, huge industry that permeates every part of the state of Maryland--from the Assateague ponies down on the Eastern Shore to three big trail riding stables in Garrett county. To everything in between."
The horse industry now contributes more than $1 billion a year to the Maryland economy—not counting race track activities, according to a study by the Sage Policy group. But just seven years ago, much of the local horse industry was suffering through what former Maryland Racing Commission chairman Bruce Quade calls "the bad old days."
After decades of decline, Maryland racing was nearly wiped out, thanks to the arrival of slot machines at tracks in the neighboring states. With the extra money, those tracks were able to offer bigger purses, better facilities and incentives to breeders, Quade said.
"The breeding program, for years that’s been one of the strong points of Maryland, and the bottom had completely fell out," he said. "We lost 80 percent of our horses."
Maryland voters approved slots in 2008. But the company that owned the race tracks—also headed by Frank Stronach--was denied a slots permit for Laurel Park because it failed to include licensing fees with its application. That turned out to be a lucky mistake.
Maryland horse folks get a share of purses fattened with slots money. Yet they have escaped the fate of tracks in other states that have been converted to racinos, where horse races are just background noise for casino gambling.
At the time, though, the future looked as bleak and barren as the racetracks, where the small, weekday crowds rarely left the clubhouse simulcast TV’s, even when live horses were racing outside. Trainer Linda Gaudet said most everybody in the business fled to other states except those with strong Maryland ties.
"And whether we were just stupid or you know, whatever, we all just stuck it out, hoping things would get better," she recalled. "We weren’t sure they were going to get better because it got pretty gloomy there for a while."
Tensions were so high that the track owners, the breeders and horsemen—as most others in the industry are called--took out their frustrations on each other. A key point of dispute was how many live racing days would be held each year. As chairman of the Maryland racing commission, Quade helped to broker a 10-year peace agreement.
"At the time, Maryland had seen its racing days decrease over the years," he said. "There was a lot of concern that those days kept going down and down. The Stronach group was losing money, the horsemen weren’t having as many days as they wanted. The purses weren’t big enough. So the 10-year accord basically tried to rectify all of that."
By all accounts, that 2012 agreement has been a success—with the help of a second deal that fattened purses for Maryland bred horses and, of course, the revenue sharing from slots at off-track casinos.
Of the 162 live racing days approved for this year, 150 are being held at Laurel Park, which has become virtually a year-round facility. Even so, veterinarian Tom Bowman says it’s not too soon to determine if changes might be in order.
"If you use a veterinary term, we’re sort of trying to take the pulse of the industry as it exists right now," Bowman explained. "Assess the health of it, and then determine if there are subtle changes that would improve our outlook in the future."
Meanwhile, Quade notes, that a big challenge to making horse racing cool again is demographic.
"One guy said the average age of a racing fan is dead," he said, repeating a joke all too common in the industry.
But then, Quade said he was shocked during a recent visit to Laurel Park to find a hearty and relatively youthful crowd. He said he felt like he was in a time capsule.
"Like I just landed back in the 1970’s when there was all kinds of people at the track: betting, having a good time. It was eye-opening. It was what we were shooting for but it was pretty darn nice to see it."
So far at least, it looks like they’ve backed a winner.