Wagering at Laurel Park falls 26 percent

Daily Record Business Writer
April 21, 2009 7:52 PM

After a racing season at Laurel Park marked by the poor economy and the bankruptcy of its owner, total wagering at the track dropped by nearly 26 percent this winter — nearly three times the national average.

Over 58 live racing days — one fewer than last winter — the total amount wagered dropped by $56 million to $219.8 million, according to the Maryland Jockey Club. Laurel’s season ran from Jan. 1 through April 11.

According to the Equibase Company LLC, an industry research firm based in Kentucky, wagering in the U.S. from Jan. 1 through March 31 totaled $3.1 billion, a decline of 9.4 percent from the corresponding period in 2008.

Tim Rice, an industry analyst with Rice Voelker LLC in Louisiana, called Laurel’s struggle “significantly worse” than other tracks’ since the economic downturn began last fall and attributed the gap to competition from neighboring states.

“Many associated with Maryland racing have been driven to Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania because of the larger purse money due to slots,” he said.

Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Association, said those revenues have helped other tracks through the downturn.

“Certainly with higher purses there are fuller fields, and with fuller fields people wager more money,” he said.

While Delaware’s racing commission still reported a 20 percent decrease in total wagering last year, tracks in other states have fared better. West Virginia tracks saw a 9 percent wagering decline and Pennsylvania tracks reported a 2 percent drop, according to those states’ racing commissions.

Hopkins noted that the failure to secure a bid for slot machines at Laurel Park this winter was seen as a setback for the track’s future. The Laurel Racing Association, which failed to submit a fee with its application to operate slots, is appealing the state’s decision to not accept its bid.

Tom Chuckas, president of the jockey club, said while the downward trend has hit the entire industry this year, Laurel has been especially hurt by bad press this winter.

In addition to losing slots, Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Laurel and Pimlico tracks, filed for bankruptcy on March 5, and this month Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law that allows Baltimore to seize Pimlico Race Course by eminent domain.

“Quite honestly, external issues like the [video lottery terminals], the eminent domain — all that does negatively affect the Maryland Jockey Club,” he said.

Out-of-state betting on Maryland races also took a particularly large hit this winter. Export wagering fell 37 percent this winter and accounted for two-thirds of Laurel’s $56 million drop. Rice noted that statistic indicates a falling demand for Maryland’s races.

“I think there’s not a lot of affection for Maryland racing outside of Maryland, and I’m not sure there’s a whole lot left inside the state,” he said.

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