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Preakness Masks An Ailing State Racehorsing Industry
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May 20, 2011
That’s the gentle clip-clop of Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner and hometown favorite in tomorrow’s Preakness. He was performing his pre-workout prance last week before a gallery of fans at Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County.
And now, here he is on the track, coming up from behind a training pony with the kind of power that made this long-shot an instant horse hero.
Animal Kingdom’s 20-to-1 Derby shot win was the best news in years for Maryland’s deeply-troubled thoroughbred racing industry. The chestnut colt is neither Maryland-bred nor Maryland-owned. But he is trained by Maryland-based Graham Motion, which allows the state to share in his sudden celebrity as a potential Triple Crown winner.
The 46-year-old trainer -- who was born in Cambridge, England but settled in Maryland two decades ago -- knows this moment is fleeting. As he waited the other day for Animal Kingdom to return from the track, Motion tried to keep his contribution to the local horse industry in perspective.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think there’s lots of bright spots in Maryland horse racing. I just think it’s exciting to have a horse like this. I never imagined having the winner of the Derby and taking him to the Preakness. So, that’s pretty exciting.”
Even so, he acknowledged that the gang of television trucks and daily spectators, who have come out to Fair Hill to see him and Animal Kingdom, are very good for the local horse racing business.
“This is unusual. This is horse racing’s two weeks. So, we’re going to make the most of it.”
At yesterday’s “Alibi Breakfast,” an annual brag fest for local horsemen and Preakness competitors, Animal Kingdom was celebrated as the 2-to-1 favorite with a full field challengers. Breeder Mike Pons explained:
“It’s wide open. He’s the horse to beat, but the best horse usually wins the Preakness. To win the Derby, you’ve got to be good and lucky. Here you see more formful races in the Preakness, so we’ll see how good he is.”
Judging by the usual crowds at the Maryland’s two thoroughbred racetracks, the industry’s annual moment in the spotlight is more like two days, including Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes prelude to the Preakness.
In fact, the track owners--Canada-based Frank Stronach and Penn National Gaming—told state officials last year that live racing is a losing proposition. They threatened to cancel all but a few weeks in Preakness season this year unless they got state subsidies.
Out on the Eastern Shore, at Thornmar Farm, where the new crop of foals were sired in Kentucky, because there is no longer a resident Maryland stallion. The track owners’ claim was greeted with skepticism.
Cynthia McGuiness, a long-time Maryland horse breeder, who has watched her business collapse in recent years, saw the tactic as just another clumsy maneuver in the track owners’ botched bid for slots.
“Our real problem started when the owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, Frank Stronach, didn’t put a bid in for the slots contract. That was 2008. But Mr. Stronach realized he made the wrong decision, so he spent the next two years fighting it legally, and spending literally millions. And running down the race tracks, trying to prove to the legislature that the tracks couldn’t make any money, if they didn’t have slots. And then, the worst thing he ever did was bring in Penn National Gaming, who is the definition of a rapacious corporation. They have no interest in improving racing at all. All they want are the gaming or the slots. So, now our biggest challenge is how are we going to build up the industry again when the owners of the two thoroughbred tracks don’t want to?”
Karin DeFrancis, a former Maryland track owner, who returns to Pimlico each year to manage the Preakness festivities, defended the current operators. No matter who’s at fault, she said, the gambling competition from racetracks in surrounding states is tough to overcome.
“I always analogize it to having a fast food restaurant, and you’re only allowed to serve one product. And then restaurants pop up all around you that can offer a whole menu of options. Or, you’re an ice cream store, and you can offer vanilla, but everybody else can offer 31 flavors. That’s a hard environment to work in. But I believe very strongly that the folks who are involved in operating and running the Jockey Club are committed to doing what’s best for the industry in Maryland.”
As a mobile air-conditioner grinds away in the background, the grand lady of racing at “Old Hilltop” has gotten her annual facelift. Floors have been waxed. Most of the place has a fresh coat of paint. Red, gold and white flowers have been planted along the track near the finish line. Tents and toilets have been neatly arranged in the infield for the beer-fueled revelry ahead. Joe Beckner of Hampden worked on final touches.
“I’ve been here like 15 years on and off, and every year this time, it’s hectic. You know, it’s bad.”
Behind the scenes, it’s not hard to find rust and grime and other signs of age at the 141-year-old track, which hasn’t had major work done since the DeFrancis reign of the 1980s. Critics like, Ms. McGuiness, note that the operating subsides provided by the state for the next few years are coming from an account intended for track renovations — where they might have been better used.
And yet, as Graham Motion said, this is the time of year when Maryland enthusiasm for horse racing is at its peak. Horse lovers of all sorts can find reasons for optimism. Here’s chief cheerleader Ross Peddicord, a former racing writer for the Baltimore Sun, now serving as executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board:
“Pimlico may not be the showcase we want it to be, but it looks pretty darn good on national television, when those great horses are racing out there.”
As for the continuing slots wars and disputes between thoroughbred and harness racing interests, Peddicord says, one way or another, Maryland isn’t about to give up on its horses.
“We’ve had many ups and downs throughout the years, but we’re still here. We’re gritty, we’re survivalist, our industry has been pummeled by a terrible economy, by the slots competition from neighboring states, and gosh darn it, we’re still here. And we’re in force, and we’re producing great horses.”
We all like to root for come-from-behinders. But better ask your bookie for the odds on Maryland’s thoroughbred racing industry.
I’m Karen Hosler, reporting in Fair Hill and Pimlico, for 88.1 WYPR.
You can hear and view each segment of our series by logging on to our website at www.wypr.org., click on WYPR Newsroom.
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