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Horse racing's decline may be due to lack of marketing

June 26, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

A story in Sunday's edition of The (Baltimore) Sun casts doubt on the idea that legalizing slot machines would improve the fortunes of Maryland's horse-racing industry.

According to figures cited by Sun reporter Andrew A. Green, betting on thoroughbred racing in Delaware is down 40 percent since slots were legalized there in 1996.

Green also reported that while wagering at West Virginia tracks increased after slots were legalized there, the amount of money bet has now started to drop.

The bottom line, Green writes, is that while horse owners and jockeys in states with slots are now competing for purses that are three times what they used to be, the popularity of the sport continues to decline.

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Perhaps horse racing will go the way of men's dress hats - once popular, but worn by few today.

That is certainly possible, but allow me to suggest another idea: Horse racing might be one of the most poorly-marketed sports in the U.S.

Anyone who watches any TV at all has seen the spots for Charles Town Races & Slots. They picture happy people in the slots parlor waving big wads of money overhead.

Have you seen a similar ad for horse racing lately? Maybe the week before the Preakness, but not on any regular basis.

In a nation of animal lovers, the lack of any organized marketing campaign (that I can perceive) is nothing short of amazing.

Can you remember the name of this year's Kentucky Derby winner? If you do recall that it was Street Sense, it was probably because of the jockey, Calvin Borel, and his enthusiastic celebration after the race.

Horse racing ought to be a natural for marketing, for a number of reasons, including the aforementioned point that Americans are animal lovers to a degree that makes people in other nations wonder a bit about American priorities.

For example, because of organized campaigns against the butchering of horses for meat, there is only one U.S. slaughterhouse, in DeKalb, Ill., where horses are still prepared for overseas diners. An Illinois law, passed in May to ban the practice, is under appeal.

The drama of horse racing also lends itself to story telling, as movie makers found out again in 2003, when "Seabiscuit" grossed $148 million worldwide and sold 5 million DVDs the first week it was released.

Concede for a moment that I'm correct that horse racing is poorly marketed. Why should anyone care?

At the start of the 2005 Maryland General Assembly session, a group that included Magna Entertainment, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society gave a report on horse racing to state lawmakers.

They told lawmakers that breeding and horse racing in the state have a $1 billion impact annually on the state's economy.

In addition, the report said, horse breeding makes it profitable to preserve 200,000 acres of green space in the state. to put that in perspective, Washington County's preservation goal is 50,000 acres.

Preserving green space means less urban sprawl, which means the taxpayers won't have to pay for as many new roads, schools and public safety employees such as police, firefighters and paramedics.

Just as important, Maryland's government still faces what is called a structural deficit, which means costs are scheduled to outpace revenues for years to come.

Slots at the state's horse tracks would be a source of those revenues and preserve the 20,000 jobs that Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of Business and Economic Development in 2005, said were racing related.

If you haven't heard those facts, I'm not surprised. As I said at the start of this column, the horse racing industry doesn't do a very good job of telling its own story.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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