If you search the Arlington Park website, you’ll find no report about why the horse track was closed for two years from 1998-1999.
You’ll find out how the track recovered in the 1980s from a fire that destroyed the grandstand, forcing the track to move its meet to Hawthorne Race Course, located across town in Chicago; you’ll find out how in 1981, Arlington Park became the first horse track in the history of the world to offer a $1 million purse for one race, the Arlington Million; you’ll find out that Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Native Dancer, and Citation have been among the countless horses to run and win at the track; you’ll find out that Cigar tied Citation’s 16-race winning streak at the track; but the only mention of the track going dark is that it reopened in 2000 after a two year absence.But Arlington Park did close and ironically it was because people were gambling too much- not on horse racing, but at casinos and on state lotteries.
And it’s the same problem that could have made Saturday’s Preakness Stakes the last ever held in the state of Maryland, the last held at Pimlico after 132 years of history.
While Arlington Park somehow climbed back after being purchased by Churchill Downs Inc. in 2000 and hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in 2002, few other tracks have been so lucky.
Over the past 15 years, competition from casinos and state lotteries have allowed numerous historic tracks to vanish.
Ak-Sar-Ben, which is “Nebraska” spelled backwards, closed following its 1995 season after years of dwindling attendance due to competition from Prairie Meadows in Iowa and various tracks in Kansas.
The addition of parimutuel racing in Iowa in 1989 and Kansas in 1990 ended the Omaha track’s monopoly over thoroughbred racing in the great plains, and the creation of the “Racino” in Iowa gave Ak-Sar-Ben too much to handle. A “racino” is a horse track that also has a slot parlor attached to it, with profits from the slot parlor used to increase purses and attract better horses to the track.
The Prairie Meadows racino was one of the first of its kind.
On April 1, 1995, Prairie Meadows reopened its racino with 1100 slot machines. The track was only six years old, but in 1991 had filed for bankruptcy and closed for a year.
But the addition of slot machines saved the track, which is owned by Polk County, and its profits are now funneled into building projects for the city of Des Moines.
Ak-Sar-Ben, which never was helped by legislation to build a casino and lost customers to the casino at Prairie Meadows, had its assets liquidated off by the end of the century.
Other closures include Detroit Race Course in 1998, Atlantic City Race Course in New Jersey in 2001, Longacres Race Track and Play Fair Racecourse in Washington in 1995 and 2000 respectively, and Hialeah Park in Florida in 2001.
Each of those tracks has run graded stakes and provided thousands of jobs. The only one that will still be standing at the end of the year is Hialeah Park, which has been deemed a National Historic Place.
Hialeah Park, which opened the first turf course in the United States in 1933 and was famed for its beauty, reached such acclaim that some have called it the “track that made Miami famous.”
Detroit Race Course was, at the time of its closing, the only thoroughbred track in Michigan. The thoroughbred industry provided 45,000 jobs in the state.
Many farms moved out to neighboring states or closed completely after the closing. By 1999, one year after the closing, there were less than 30,000 jobs.
Detroit Race Course, which lost $18 million over its final 14 years of operation, had once been a profitable business. But over that span, at least 19 Indian Casinos opened, and three downtown Detroit Casinos had been approved and were being built.
The management tried to pass legislation for it to open its own casino, but it was denied.
The industry is still struggling to recover in Michigan and it is all but dead in Nebraska.
And soon, it could be dead in Maryland.
For a decade, Pimlico and Laurel Park, along with the two standardbred tracks in the state, have been lobbying lawmakers for slot machines at race tracks.
Since racinos opened in West Virginia and Delaware in the mid-1990s and in 2006 in Pennsylvania, purses at neighboring tracks have increased.
Mountaineer Park in Chester, Wv. once offered less than $4000 a night in purses. Now, the minimum race on a card has a greater purse than that.
Within five years of opening the racino, Mountaineer went from on the verge of bankruptcy to the number seven spot on Forbes 200 list, a remarkable jump, making a $16.9 million profit in 2000 and continuing at about $15 million a year for the past seven years.
As the race purses have increased, many stables have relocated to Mountaineer and other tracks, leaving Maryland with a lower caliber field.
While Pimlico and Laurel once dwarfed the other tracks in purse money, they now cannot afford to offer on the same level.
In 2006, the two Maryland parks offered $240,000 a day in purses. However, for 2007, they had to take $8 million in reserve funds in order to maintain just $200,000 a day.
Additionally, Pimlico had to cancel the $500,000 Pimlico Special, the second most prestigious race on the schedule behind only the Preakness. It was in the Special that Sea Biscuit beat War Admiral in 1938 in the famous match race.
While the race had been canceled before, most recently in 2002 for financial reasons, it showed the decline in the track.
In 1938, Sea Biscuit and War Admiral raced at Pimlico because the track was on the same level as Churchill Downs and Saratoga and Arlington Park.
By 2008, it may be on the same level as Ak-Sar-Ben and Detroit Race Course and Play Fair.
That is, if it doesn’t get slot machines.
Even big tracks like Gulfstream Park in South Florida and Aqueduct in New York have opened slot parlors to help alleviate declining interest in horse racing and the industry as a whole has become dependent on racinos.
Pimlico has become a dilapidated facility running on its last legs and surviving solely based on the money it makes on Preakness day. But in a couple years, that might not be enough to keep Pimlico and Laurel afloat the other 364 days.
At least not without slots. And it doesn’t look like they’re going to get it.
Former Governor Robert Ehrlich, who was one of the biggest proponents of adding slot machines at the tracks and using part of the proceeds to fund education, was voted out of office last November after four years of facing a hostile state congress.
For now, Pimlico and Laurel are still holding on, barely, like Ak-Sar-Ben was in 1994. But without slot machines, who knows when it will all crumble.
They saved Mountaineer and Prairie Meadows and could do the same for Maryland racing while also helping fund education.
Some have argued that Magna Entertainment, which owns the Maryland tracks, has exaggerated the direness of the situation, but even so, the facts show that purses at Pimlico and Laurel keep decreasing and the tracks continue to lose more and more money due to people gambling at racinos in neighboring states.
It’s sad, but it is a fact.
Pimlico couldn’t stage a match race between a Sea Biscuit and a War Admiral today if it prayed.
The barns are falling apart, the grandstand is described specifically as “historic” to cover up that they cannot afford to refurbish it, and the horses that run there aren’t of the same caliber as in 1938, except on that third Saturday every May.
Racing could very well go dark in Maryland very soon, like it did in Detroit and Nebraska, like it did for two years in Chicago, like it had before racinos in Iowa and Delaware. And to be honest, nobody will recognize its disappearance, at least not until that third Saturday in May, when the Preakness is run somewhere else.
Somewhere without the history, without a past that includes Sea Biscuit and War Admiral, without a past that has seen almost every Kentucky Derby winner come through, trying to capture that second jewel on the way to the triple crown.
Maybe at Mountaineer, where 12 years ago the track was nothing more than a struggling bush league circuit. Wouldn’t that be a shame.
The sport of kings cannot survive on its own and needs the help of slot machines to keep it going, and I don’t want it to die.
At least not in Maryland.
So I beg the state to please reconsider and grant Pimlico and Laurel the rights to have slot machines to save thoroughbred racing in that state, to save the Preakness, to save history.
The Preakness is as Maryland as crab cakes, if not more. It predates the Kentucky Derby and almost every other major American horse race.
“Remember Carroll’s sacred trust, remember Howard’s warlike thrust,- and all thy slumberers with the just, Maryland! My Maryland!”
And remember the Preakness, even if it’s never held at Pimlico again.