SCOTT SIMON, host:
Thoroughbred racing gets a lot of attention this time of year, as the Triple Crown races are featured on the sports pages. The 136th running of the Preakness goes off later today. Its home track, Pimlico, will be filled with fans. But that's the exception nowadays. The Maryland track has been losing millions of dollars in recent years. Many wonder if it can survive.
NPR's Allison Keyes reports.
Unidentified Man: They're off at the Kentucky Derby.
ALLISON KEYES: There's something about racing that makes the hearts of enthusiasts beat faster.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) to win the Derby.
KEYES: And this year's Preakness, if the colt Animal Kingdom does it again, could be historic.
(Soundbite of horns)
KEYES: But Pimlico Race Course isn't always as packed as it is for its biggest race. On a recent rainy day, the nation's second-oldest racetrack is almost empty. Veronica Hegarty has been coming here since she was a little kid. She says the crowds have fallen off, and Pimlico looks its age.
Ms. VERONICA HEGARTY: It's a shame, what's happened to racing, especially here in Maryland.
(Soundbite of music)
KEYES: But the Maryland Jockey Club is trying to attract a new crowd here with events like a wine festival in the infield. Baltimore resident Denise Hill came and had a blast with her new passion for betting on horses.
Ms. DENISE HILL: It's a great time. It supports the state. And when I win, it's even better.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEYES: Hill says she'll be back, and so did many others at the festival who came both for the wine and for the horse racing.
Still, Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, says it lost $10 million last year. That's despite the annual millions the Preakness brings in. Now, the Jockey Club is trying to bring in more than the traditional racing demographic, where fans are in their 50s.
Mr. TOM CHUCKAS (President, Maryland Jockey Club): We have to become much more multi-faceted and provide other things in the facility.
KEYES: For big race days like today's Preakness, Pimlico will have bands and food vendors, among other things. The club is getting millions in subsidies from slot machines elsewhere in the state for the next three years for operating expenses. There are no slots at Pimlico or its sister track, Laurel Park. And Chuckas says they aren't alone in their battle for revenue.
Mr. CHUCKAS: If you look at horseracing across the United States, almost every racetrack is having some difficulty. Now, the tracks that are called racinos, that they have gaming there, and so on, they obviously have a revenue source that can work with horse racing to bolster it up.
(Soundbite of fans cheering)
KEYES: Hollywood Casino at Charles Town in West Virginia has a track where night horseraces are run and a huge casino. It's owned by Penn National Gaming, which owns more than 20 racing and gaming facilities in several states. It's also the minority owner of the Maryland Jockey Club that operates Pimlico and Laurel.
Spokesman Eric Schippers says for the racing industry to flourish, slot machines must be involved.
Mr. ERIC SCHIPPERS (Spokesman, Penn National Gaming): The long term viability of racing - not just in Maryland, but everywhere across the country - is largely dependent on the eventual introduction of slot machines.
KEYES: But not everyone buys that scenario.
Mr. TOM LAMARRA (News Editor, BloodHorse.com): It's kind of a complicated situation.
KEYES: Tom LaMarra is news editor of BloodHorse.com and has covered the industry for 18 years. He says he doesn't think the industry is doomed without slots. He says decades ago, the only legal places to gamble were at racetracks or in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
But now, gamblers have their choice, from various lotteries to casinos scattered across the nation. In the Mid-Atlantic, where there are several tracks within a few hours of each other, LaMarra says some level of consolidation might work.
Mr. LAMARRA: At some point, I think everybody will need to sit down and say: OK, you know, we need to coordinate stakes schedules. We may even need to coordinate racing dates.
Unidentified Woman: Can I just do two horses?
KEYES: But the betting goes on at Pimlico, and Chuckas says the industry's challenge in Maryland is to create a long-term solution that's viable. Under the legislation that provided the slot machines, the Maryland Jockey Club must submit a five-year business plan to the legislature by December 1st, maintaining year-round racing without the help of slots at a racetrack.
Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.
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