Being the "middle child" of the Triple Crown, the Preakness never has the excitement of the Derby or the potential for high drama of the Belmont
Stakes. It is a major stakes race put in a position where it will always be the poor relative; that is a calendar-induced reality. I understand that.
Nonetheless, I have to tell you that the environment of the Preakness is sufficiently dismal that it makes this "middle child" into something about as
attractive as Rosemary's baby.
I know I will make no new friends in Baltimore or in Maryland over what I'm about to say, but I'll say it anyway. Maryland racing stinks; the people
who now run Maryland racing are carpetbaggers; the people who sold out to the current owners were incompetent boobs. Pimlico is less cozy a venue than
the Black Hole of Calcutta; Laurel Park is nicer meaning that it edges out your typical UN Refugee Camp in terms of places you'd want to visit on a
sunny Saturday afternoon. This is the environment of the Preakness Stakes. The Preakness Stakes should not be contested in Maryland any longer.
When Laurel Park was undergoing one of its facelifts about 8 or 10 years ago - translation: they painted some of the things that didn't move - I
commented to a friend that all I asked for was to be able to touch something in the grandstand area and not find it to be sticky. The place was
filthy; I am hardly the world's most fastidious individual and I have no tendencies to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but going to Laurel made me want
to wash my hands about 50 times in any given afternoon. Laurel Park has been "renovated" again recently and it is still a miserable place with all the
attractiveness and charm of those blue deodorant cakes in the bottoms of urinals.
Pimlico is worse than Laurel and not by any small measure. I simply will not go to Pimlico any more. I remember the days when New York's OTB parlors
were forbidden to have seats in them and many were the size of a small newsstand; even those places were no worse than Pimlico is now and has been for
the past couple of decades.
Maryland racing is run by Magna Entertainment - a Canadian company. They seem to know something about what they are doing because they also own and
operate a bunch of other tracks around the country and those tracks seem to be in decent condition. Gulfstream Park is a nice venue; Lone Star Park
hosted the Breeders' Cup last year to rave reviews; Santa Anita is a highly respected venue in North American racing. So Magna Entertainment isn't the
entirety of the problem. They spent almost $120M to buy Laurel and Pimlico from the previous local owners about 3 years ago and promised major
investments to upgrade the facilities and the racing quality in Maryland. Then slot machines at the racetracks became the battleground for political
struggles in the state government in Maryland.
Let me be very clear about something here. I like gambling and I like horseracing. I do NOT like slot machines and I do NOT play slot machines except
in one very controlled circumstance. When I go to Las Vegas on my annual Fall pilgrimage, my long-suffering wife gives me four quarters to play for
her. I put them into one machine one at a time and pull the lever four times. Whatever comes out of the machine - if anything - I give to her. That's
it; that's the extent of my slot machine playing. So, you probably can understand that I don't care even one little bit if they put slots at Laurel or
Pimlico or any other racing facility I might attend. In fact, all else being equal, I'd rather the slots NOT be at the track because:
1. Slots are noisy and distracting as you try to handicap races
2. Slots bring people to the track who do not care about racing and those people often bring children to the racetrack. My idea for children at the
racetrack is that they should be bound and gagged; horseplayers do not need scampering children in the area.
3. Slots would enrich the track owners who have been such horrible custodians of the sport that they have let the facilities go to seed and have
driven the quality of racing down to the point where many races are unbetable. Make no mistake, watching a bad horserace where there are no
interesting wagering opportunities is a significantly miserable way to spend your time.
Magna Entertainment lost money last quarter - and not a trivial sum either. So they now want to cut back on their renovation expenses for these dismal
track properties and would really like to get slot machines for the tracks and any expanded OTB facilities that the legislature might permit as a way
to generate other revenues. But for what seems like the umpteenth time, the legislature and the governor cannot come up with a way to approve slot
machines or disapprove them once and for all. And the Kabuki theatre keeps on keepin' on.
Magna Entertainment owns the Preakness; they got it as part of the deal to buy the tracks. Magna Entertainment has several other venues where it can
run the race; the three tracks I mentioned above would all be nicer than Pimlico by a mile. Politicians in Maryland say any such threat to move the
race is just a form of political blackmail. Maybe they're right; but if they are wrong… The Preakness basically pays the freight for Maryland
racing's losses the rest of the year. Imagine if that race took off for somewhere else.
A few of the bloviating pols in Maryland say that they'll retaliate against Magna Entertainment with higher taxes and fees if the race goes elsewhere.
What they don't seem to get is this:
Magna Entertainment is out somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 - 220M on their investment in Maryland racing so far and could just as easily move
the Preakness to another track and close down these two festering sewage dumps and sell the land. Somehow, I don't think that losing all the racetrack
jobs and going through the economic dislocation that will come from that is punishment for Magna Entertainment as much as it is the local people in
Another legislative threat is to pass a law mandating that the state has the right to match any offer made to buy the Preakness and thereby Maryland
will keep its race. Excuse me, that might work if Magna Entertainment didn't already have half a dozen venues to stage the race and needed to sell it
off as an asset to mitigate their losses; they aren't going to sell the rights to anyone; they can just announce that the 2006 Preakness will be
contested at Gulfstream Park instead of Pimlico. If that's where the race is held and the purse is given and the Triple Crown trophies are presented,
that's where the horses will go - despite any legislative debates and bills and hearings and the like. All the perorations of the politicians in
Maryland in this circumstance can be summed up in an old adage:
Money talks; bull# walks.
There are no heroes in this mess. Magna Entertainment has been a disappointing owner of the Maryland racing properties; the group who ran the tracks
before them led by Joe DeFrancis was so inept and tone deaf to the wants of its clientele that you'd exhaust Roget's Thesaurus before you came across
enough expressions for "outrageously bumbling, feckless incompetence". The Maryland politicians can't get out of their own way as they prevent their
tracks from gaining a new revenue streams while simultaneously making it difficult for them to cap their costs. The horsemen fight to prevent cutting
racing dates to spread the purse money over fewer races which might - I said might - increase the handle as larger fields of horses could increase the
betting interests even if the animals entered are rock bottom in terms of talent. No one deserves to come out of this as a winner.
And so, it seems to me that the right answer is for Magna Entertainment to move the Preakness to Gulfstream Park (logistically easier for the Triple
Crown horses than either Lone Star or Santa Anita) and to start to look for ways to sell off the land underlying Laurel Park and Pimlico to
developers. They'll take a loss, but the way things are going now, they'll take a bath if they stay with the status quo. This won't cure the problem
of the Preakness as a "middle child"; but it should make Magna Entertainment's shareholders happier.
While you couldn't get me to attend the Preakness short of sedating me and transporting me to the track and then holding me at gunpoint at Pimlico
this Saturday, I will wager on the race and I'll watch on TV or at one of the simulcasting outlets. If it were my decision, this would be the last
time the Preakness would be in Baltimore. The city and the state have done nothing over the past 20 years or so to continue to deserve to be the host
of a race of this magnitude.
But don't get me wrong, I love sports...
Copyright the Sports Curmudgeon