Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

In 1985, there were 115 studs in Maryland, an all-time high.

By the end of last year, only a dozen were left.

This Free State stud exodus has nothing to do with the breakup of Kix or the closing of Hammerjacks. It can, however, be traced to the elimination of live racing at Rosecroft Raceway, Maryland’s largest harness track.

Michael Wandishin, Rosecroft’s racing secretary, says that when the trotters track ended live racing in 2008—it was in bankruptcy—many owners of standardbred stallions moved their breeding operations to states where harness racing still seemed to have a future. Others simply closed up shop.

“It’s not just the trainers and people who work at the track who lose when a track closes,” says Wandashin. “It’s the breeders, and the people who grow the hay to feed the horses, and the people who sell the racing equipment, and so much more.”

Now help may be on the way. Rosecroft reopened this fall after Penn National Gaming, a massive multi-state casino- and racetrack-owning operation, bought the track at auction for $11 million. Penn National promised the bankruptcy court it would bring live racing back.

Racing was a big deal around here in 1949, when Rosecroft opened on the site of an old stud farm in Oxon Hill. The Washington Post’s opening day preview story predicted a crowd of more than 12,000 and hailed founder William E. Miller for going “first class in every respect” in the design and construction of the $800,000 facility. (The inaugural card, alas, was washed out by rain.)

“They haven’t done much to it since,” says trainer John Wagner.

Wagner’s a Rosecroft lifer. He grew up in Prince George’s County and became a track regular at just six years old. His father worked there as a trainer, driver, and administrator from opening day until his death 55 years later.

Wagner he says he’s only slightly joking about the complete lack of updating. Kids who want to know what the 1970s really looked like should stop by the clubhouse. The colorful walls and patterned linoleum floors give off a vintage bowling alley vibe; the banks of massive, analog tube television sets look like the sort of electronic cast-offs you find on the curb come trash day. Cheap paper banners that seem to have been produced with the printer set on “draft” and adorned with fortune-cookie wisdom (“Discover the Winner in You”) are randomly hung around the compound. The stuff that actually looks professionally produced, meanwhile, advertises Hollywood Casinos in Perryville, Md., and Charles Town, W.V., which are also owned by Penn National.

Wagner, who turned 55 this week, was there for Rosecroft’s heydays. The record attendance for a single card was 13,158 in June 1965. For last Friday night’s card, attendance seemed to be a few hundred, even with free parking and free admission. (Because of free admission, no hard attendance figures are kept.) Even when Wagner began his career as a driver, in 1974, Rosecroft’s purses used to hit well into the six figures. At the re-opened track, total purses for a 10-race card can be as low as $25,000. Last Friday night, they ran from $1,900 to just $2,900. The biggest one-race purse for the winter meet, which will end this week, will be $5,800.

Smaller purses attract smaller fields. Smaller fields mean smaller betting handles.

The largest handle ever recorded at Rosecroft was $1,195,681 for a card in September 1990; last Friday, according to Wandashin, the amount of money wagered on-site was “approximately $100,000.”

“You can’t even earn a living here racing anymore,” says Wagner.

If Wagner’s not making ends meet, nobody is. He’s the leading driver and trainer at Rosecroft since the reopening. He also may well be the winningest driver in Rosecroft—and Maryland—harness racing history. He was told over the weekend that he’s five races away from his 5,000 career win. He won three races on Friday’s card.

“I guess I win about three every night,” he says.

For those unfamiliar with the sport of kings: There are two primary types of horse racing. There’s Thoroughbred racing, for the breed of Secretariat and Seabiscuit. That’s the variety found at Pimlico and Laurel Park, so-called “flat-tracks” with dirt and grass courses. And then, a ways down the prestige totem pole, there’s Standardbred racing, in which trotters and pacers drag Ben Hur-style buggies around banked, paved ovals like the one at Rosecroft.

Folks with Standardbred leanings have long lamented that the state house in Annapolis and the Maryland Racing Commission, which regulates state horse racing, are stacked with Thoroughbred proponents.

To back up their bias argument, harness fans bring up the Messenger Stakes. For a time in the early ’90s, Rosecroft hosted that race, a leg of the harness racing’s own Triple Crown just as the Preakness is a leg of the Triple Crown for Thoroughbreds. In 1996, Rosecroft’s owners got in a financial pinch and said they couldn’t afford to put on the race. Nobody from Annapolis stepped in to keep the Messenger Stakes in Maryland.

“Maryland does have a law giving the state the right of first refusal to buy the Preakness, because they want to make sure it never leaves the state,” says Lisa Watts, Rosecroft’s director of operations and a 24-year employee of the track.

The biggest race in the state got shipped up to a track near Pittsburgh.

The Standardbred clique also snivels about Annapolis’ refusal to mediate a feud over simulcasting rights, an old squabble that has hurt all horse racing in the state. The Maryland Jockey Club, which controls Thoroughbred racing, prohibits Rosecroft from offering simulcasts of any Thoroughbred races without paying licensing fees that Rosecroft officials describe as a king’s ransom. Penn National doesn’t pay it, so Rosecroft only offers bettors simulcasts wagering on quarterhorse and standardbred racing.

“If we could offer just Thoroughbred simulcasting daily, we’d be a profitable business, one of the most profitable pari-mutuel businesses in the entire country,” says Watts. “That’s all because of our location. Fifty percent of our customers come from D.C. and Northern Virginia. But, we’re not allowed to offer that.”

Since its return last month, live racing has been held three nights a week, usually on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It’s not a moneymaker. So even if the simulcasting squabbles were to vanish, the survival of live racing at Rosecroft would depend on adding slot machines to the gaming options. Revenues from the slots would subsidize the racing, so the track could offer purses close to those now being offered at so-called racinos in Pennsylvania and Delaware. To wit: Bigger purses equal bigger fields, which equal bigger handles.

In 2008, after decades of debate, voters in Maryland approved slots licenses for five counties. But Prince George’s County, home to Rosecroft, isn’t one of them. For now.

Penn National is lobbying to change those rules. Last month, the County Council voted to put another slots measure up for statewide referendum. But unless state lawmakers and voters both approve more gaming for the county, Rosecroft will remain slots-free —-if it remains at all.

“Penn National is committed to this property,” says Watts. “But, it’s a publicly traded company, so they’re not going to be able to hold on to an asset that continually drains cash. So they’re doing everything they can to try to get additional forms of gaming passed here. That will determine whether we’re a break-even business or not.”

Whether or not it sticks, the return of racing at Rosecroft has already been good for Maryland in one respect. Wandishin says the stud count in the state is up to 17.

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