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Maryland horse racing loses a trusted ally.
On Dec. 31, the Washington Post’s sports section ran a memo to readers from Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the section’s editor, saying that the paper would no longer publish results charts or entries for cards at Laurel Park and Pimlico—Maryland’s two thoroughbred tracks.
“The drop in popularity in the sport and the need to cover new teams in the area, such as the Washington Nationals, have forced us to make this difficult decision,” Garcia-Ruiz wrote, adding that reader surveys indicate “that horse racing ranks at the bottom of sports in which they are interested.”
The memo ended by suggesting that readers hereafter go to the Laurel Park Web site for racing information. The paper has stuck by its New Year’s resolution so far.
Even if it’s supported by such empirical data, the loss of entries and results comes as another tough blow to hardcore railbirds. The Post had already dropped charts from the Charles Town and Rosecroft tracks in recent years.
Garcia-Ruiz says he didn’t scratch the charts lightly. “It’s a seminal change in our industry,” he says.
If newspapering owes a debt to any pastime, it’s horse racing. It could be argued that no sport over the years sold more papers than racing. The Post, for example, began publishing racing results and entries from Maryland tracks as far back as the ’70s. That would be the 1870s, when the spring and fall meetings at Pimlico got loads of ink, much of it on the front page.
A quaint tidbit from the A1 Post story from Oct. 23, 1878, the opening day of Pimlico’s fall meet: “The morning was dark and portentous, heavy fog enveloping the country, but before noon the clouds dispersed and left a beautiful afternoon. The attendance was excellent, and the track in good condition. Nearly all the principal turfmen of the country are present, and a successful meeting throughout is anticipated.”
Long after the flowery lead disappeared from the page, the Post was still giving scads of space to Maryland racing. And benefiting from it.
“You couldn’t get the charts and the sort of racing coverage that the Post had from any other source but the newspaper,” says Jack Nowakowski, who covered Maryland trotters for the Post from 1981 to 1995. “By the time I got started, there were other sources for information for baseball, basketball, and football. But for racing, that was the only source, and that was a selling point for the paper.”
Nowakowski recently moved to New York, where he now works for a trade association. During the move, he found an old copy of a Washington Post sports section that featured a half-page advertisement with the banner headline “Some investments have wet noses and run well in the mud” and copy touting the four-man team of racing-beat writers and handicappers: him, Vinnie Perrone, Rich Paul, and Andrew Beyer. A photo of a racing chart from Rosecroft illustrated the ad. Another ’90s ad campaign promoting the Post racing team was titled “That’s Why They Call It Post Time.”
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“I was coming out here everyday to write,” recalls Perrone, who left the Post in 1997, as he watches Friday’s racing card from the Laurel Park press box. “A lot of my stories might have been on page D14, right above the tire ads, but people knew to look there for racing.” (As Perrone recollects his days on the racing beat, the press box—which was built decades ago and was designed to hold more reporters than the boxes at many football stadiums—is otherwise devoid of press. A writer for the Baltimore Sun had been at the track earlier in the day to report not on the racing but on the equine herpesvirus that’s in a pre-epidemic state.)
During Nowakowski and Perrone’s run at the Post, the paper also ran ongoing racing features, such as the one that gave handicapper Clem Florio a “mythical” bankroll of $1,000 at the beginning of a meeting and published his bets and an accounting each day.
But the Post’s stable of turf writers has been whittled down to Beyer and John Scheinman, neither of whom is a full-time employee of the paper. The legendary Beyer took a buyout in 2003 and cut his workload in half; Scheinman is a freelancer—though perhaps the hardest working freelancer at the paper. (Full disclosure: I, too, covered Maryland racing for the Post as a stringer from 1997 to 2000.)
Some of the old-timers have accepted the Post’s move as a sign of the times. Joe Kelly, the dean of Maryland turf writers, turns 88 this year. He’s been covering racing in the state since 1946 and was the in-house handicapper and racing columnist at the Washington Star from 1955 until that paper’s 1981 demise. He still goes to Pimlico whenever that track is open and serves as publicity director for the annual Maryland Million racing festival.
“The newspapers used to have a corner on racing information,” says Kelly. “When I was at the Sun, the phone was always ringing at the sports desk with people calling for racing results. So we had a rule: no results over the phone. And I think that most papers had that rule. It used to be newspapers and the tracks. Now, racing results are everywhere. Who would have ever thought that you could get racing results in your living room? But with all the simulcasting and various ways of presenting betting in the homes, you can. So, I can’t say this is surprising.”
Yet the racing industry isn’t yet ready to concede all those column inches in the Post—and not because of any historical debt the paper owes the sport. Mike Gathagan, a spokesperson for the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Laurel Park and Pimlico, can cite recent statistics that show that Maryland racing might be in a sort of Abe Vigoda–like state: Everybody just thinks it’s dead.
In 2005, even though slot machines were ringing at race tracks in every bordering state, Maryland Jockey Club figures show that betting was actually up at Laurel Park and Pimlico by four percent over the previous year, with the average daily handle going from $3.41 million to $3.54 million. An average of 7,785 patrons came to the track for each of the last 15 racing Saturdays of the year. (Attendance is taken only on Saturdays.)
“Compare our attendance to the attendance at the college basketball games that the Post covers and compare the coverage,” he says.
Gathagan wants racing constituents to take the fight to Garcia-Ruiz.
“We’re hoping that the owners, trainers, and breeders will go to the Post and explain how important the charts are,” says Gathagan. “It’s out of our hands now, really. It’s in the hands of the fans. If the fans speak, maybe it will come back.”
A horseplayer’s supply of hope is inexhaustible. But past performances indicate that Gathagan and others obsessed with the turf have some reason to believe that the Post’s cutback can be reversed. In the summer of 2004, the Sun reduced the space allotted to Laurel Park and Pimlico results in its sports section. Randy Harvey, the Sun’s assistant managing editor for sports, says he’d made the decision shortly after coming to the paper from the Los Angeles Times in April of that year.
It didn’t take Harvey long to realize he’d picked a loser.
“I was really hearing it [from readers],” says Harvey. “We were getting the Post’s charts sent to us and people saying, ‘This is the right way to do it, you jerk!’ We’ve done some things that were different since I came here, but this was by far the biggest response to anything we’ve done. It was like, How dare I? I think we were driving people to the Post.”
But not for long. Harvey’s second big decision as boss of the Sun’s sports section was to put the racing charts back in. —Dave McKenna