Weather has cost Laurel Park its big days

Posted: 6:57 pm Tue, February 9, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

A lone bettor, at Laurel Park for simulcasting Tuesday, gets his ticket from an automated teller booth. The track has lost five racing days to the weather.

With an already declining business during its winter meet, Laurel Park could be facing its worst season in decades after snowstorms have forced track officials to cancel five racing days so far.

The last time Laurel lost five racing days in a meeting was during 2003, when snow caused five cards to be canceled during February.

This year, Laurel Park was closed on Jan. 30 and last weekend, and this week officials announced that Wednesday’s and Thursday cards would be canceled.

Two of those cancellations have been Saturdays, which are by far the busiest wagering days of the week. And with another storm looming, a cancellation this weekend isn’t out of the question either. That means three out of the 15 Saturdays on the track’s racing calendar could be lost.

“That’s 20 percent of your largest and most profitable day of the week,” said Joe De Francis, a former owner of Laurel Park and a bidder in the track’s upcoming auction. “If you lose Wednesday, Thursday or Friday … you can make up for most of it if not all of it by adding day on a Monday or Tuesday. But you just can’t make up for a Saturday by doing that. There’s no way.”

Laurel’s winter meeting ends Saturday, April 10, and Pimlico Race Course’s spring meet begins the following Saturday. Therefore, while officials can add race days during the week, Laurel cannot extend its racing season to the following weekend to compensate for some of the lost Saturday business, according to the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the race tracks.

Tom Chuckas, president of the jockey club, was not available for further comment Tuesday.

De Francis said when he and officials at the time canceled five race days in 2003, it was an easy decision because they had no choice — it wasn’t safe for the horses to run and it wasn’t safe for employees to get to work.

“But it’s a painful decision nonetheless, given the economic consequences,” he said.

With the loss of business, the total wagering for Laurel’s winter meet — which has been declining for the past three years — will likely take a hit this season. In 2006, the winter meet reached a high of $321 million in total wagering, but as race days have been fewer and interest has lagged, that number has steadily fallen.

In 2009, $164 million was wagered over 58 racing days, the same number of days originally scheduled for 2010. Last year’s total was a more than 25 percent decrease from the previous winter meeting, which totaled $220 million in wagering over 59 racing days.

According to the 2010 average daily handle figures, the five canceled race days this year represent a total of about $14.5 million in wagering.

The race track only gets a small percentage of the total handle to keep as revenue. But track revenue is heavily dependent on wagering, said De Francis.

“[The handle] is the lifeblood of the industry and track’s business,” he said.

He added that other than the Preakness Stakes, which is the biggest sporting event in the state and generates other revenue for the Jockey Club via television rights, sponsorship and other streams, roughly 90 percent of track revenue comes from wagering.

“Admissions, parking and food service is just a pittance,” De Francis said.