By Tom Keyser
Boy was I naïve. When I started covering horse racing in March 1996 I thought this would be fun. My first day on the job, I flew to Ft. Lauderdale for the Florida Derby. I sat in the press box at Gulfstream Park overlooking a chocolate-colored track and a blue lake, sparkling in sunlight. I flourished for a couple of years, writing with innocence and enthusiasm about Cigar, my first visit to Saratoga, and life on a horse farm. Then the lights went out. Looking back on it, the power outage at the '98 Preakness was probably the turning point. It was the worst day of my working life--granted, I have never covered a war--as well as the harbinger of events that would transform me, the incurable optimist, into a sometimes-bitter naysayer.
At the '99 Preakness, a man walked onto the track three races before the main event and threw a punch at Artax. I suppose that could have happened at the Kentucky Derby or Belmont, just as Churchill Downs or Belmont Park could have lost power. But it didn't. It happened in Maryland. Before long, by merely covering what seemed relevant, I was spending more time writing about the negative aspects of racing than about colorful characters and heart-rending accomplishment. As tracks in Delaware and West Virginia pumped up purses and built nightclubs and sports bars with profits from slot machines, Maryland slipped into despair. Long-simmering resentments boiled over into public disputes.
I became suspicious of trainers cheating with illegal drugs, and boy, has that ever poisoned my cheerful approach to the sport. I chronicled the decline of racing and breeding in Maryland, spending too much time talking to politicians and too little to sportsmen. Pimlico and Laurel Park continued their declines. Stakes were cut. It seemed everybody in Maryland turned sour. Nobody could muster any hope. "I don't remember things being this bad," veteran trainer Dale Capuano said. "Before, I could always see a little light at the end of the tunnel." Lo and behold, there's light there now, and although no one is certain whether the train will roar or wreck, hope is back on track in Maryland. Until recently it looked as if Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a sure bet for becoming Maryland's next governor. She is a Democrat in a state with a 2-1 Democratic majority. She is also a Kennedy, the eldest child of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy. Although she professes support for the horse industry, she adamantly opposes slot machines.
Her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, has risen in the polls until, at this writing, the race is a dead heat. Ehrlich favors slots at racetracks, a position most horsemen in Maryland have come to embrace, albeit reluctantly for some. As the prospect of slot machines in Maryland has grown, so too has the possibility that Pimlico and Laurel Park will be metamorphosed into first-class tracks. Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp. has reached agreement with Joe De Francis' Maryland Jockey Club to buy a majority interest in the tracks. On Whitney day this summer at Saratoga, Stronach sat in his box at the track and said he plans on tearing down Pimlico and rebuilding it on the same site. He said this would begin immediately after next year's Preakness. He acknowledged delays in promised improvements at his other tracks, especially Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park, but was unapologetic. He said Maryland would be a Magna priority. "The racing world will look at us by what we do at Pimlico," Stronach said. What do I make of this? I root for the revival of Maryland racing. I want my job to be fun again. I can't see how the state's political leaders, facing a $1.7-billion budget deficit, can continue rejecting slot machines as Maryland residents stream across the border to play them in neighboring states. Stronach has told members of the Maryland Racing Commission he plans on tearing down Laurel Park and rebuilding it, too. At the same time he has already pushed the demolition of Pimlico back one year. Still, the Preakness is Maryland's trump card. Stronach will be judged by what he does at Pimlico. That's why when he says he'll resurrect the place, I believe him. Of course maybe that's just me, being naïve.