Joe DeFrancis, helped raise money for injured and disabled jockeys.

Joe DeFrancis, helped raise money for injured and disabled jockeys.

Sun and Fun at Pimlico Belie Industry Problems

For one day, the sun shone on Maryland racing.

On July 7, closing day at Pimlico, kids frolicked in the infield, nearly 6,500 patrons risked their dollars on the horses, and Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, got dunked in the dunking booth.

A bright summer sun bathed Pimlico in warmth and, in some cases, good cheer as the historic track in Baltimore ended its spring meet of 71 live racing days. As part of Jockeys Across America Day De Francis spent 32 minutes in the infield dunking booth raising money for injured and disabled riders.

Wearing sunglasses, a sleeveless gray T-shirt and denim shorts, De Francis got dunked six times -- once by his sister, Karin, a senior vice president at the track. The dunking booth was part of an infield carnival in conjunction with a meeting of the Pony Pals Kids Club.

"That was fun," a shivering De Francis said after climbing out of the booth. "When the sun went behind the clouds it was a little cool. Other than that, it was fine."

But all was not fine as Maryland Thoroughbred racing began a four and a half week break as racing shifted to Colonial Downs in Virginia and other tracks in the region. Racing will return to Pimlico Aug. 8.

Pimlico ended its spring season with a significant drop in in-state betting on its live races. This occurred as the track and horsemen slashed 22 stakes (while adding six) and cut purses -- as purses continue to rise in surrounding states.

The cuts were necessary because the state legislature refused to renew a $10 million purse supplement to the harness and thoroughbred industry. Of that, $6.2 million would have gone to thoroughbred purses. And further cuts will be necessary, said Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club.

"The next 12 to 24 months are going to be a real tough time for us," Raffetto said.

On July 1 last year, the MJC, with state consent, increased takeout by an average of 1.5 percent. The added takeout has been going into a fund to finance the state sale of bonds that will pay for track improvements. The increase is probably partly responsible for the drop in betting on Maryland races, Raffetto said.

Betting in state on Maryland races during the Pimlico meet totaled $37.5 million, compared to $44.6 million for a similar period last year. However, last year's total includes 46 more races (about $2 million in handle, Raffetto said) plus 14 days of racing at Laurel Park, where handle is traditionally higher.

Betting in state on out-of-state simulcasts increased to $106.6 million this year, compared to $99.2 million last year. The drop in betting on the local races and the rise in betting on out-of-state races nearly offset one another, so that the total in-state handle was about the same as last year ($144.1 million this year, $143.8 million last year).

Finally, betting out of state on Maryland races rose ($171.6 million this year, $169.9 million last year).

"We're basically talking about a program that's stable, stationary, stagnant, whatever you want to call it," Raffetto said. "We need to grow the business."