Over the past year, slots money has injected energy into Maryland horse racing. Revenue from the state's two casinos has bolstered purses, helping attract better horses and create more competitive races.
The Preakness also is benefiting. Some of the weekend's undercard stakes races offer larger prizes, while the long-respected Pimlico Special returns with a $300,000 purse after disappearing for three years due to a lack of prize money.
Ticket sales for the May 19 race are up 35 percent from last year, when roughly 107,000 people attended, said Tom Chuckas, the head of the Maryland Jockey Club. Meanwhile, corporate sponsorships for naming rights, hospitality tents and the like are up 20 percent.
"People are beginning to recognize it and it's a wonderfully fantastic day," Chuckas said.
While the pageantry — and the party — of the Preakness attracts crowds to Baltimore and millions of dollars in bets, sponsorships and television exposure, the extra financial boost from the slots largesse is welcome for an industry that has faced near-collapse in recent years.
"I love more money," said Georganne Hale, the Maryland Jockey Club's racing secretary, who says higher purses for stakes races during Preakness weekend draw more and better horses for fully fielded races, which in turn could increase wagering.
Just under two years ago, the Preakness — the Triple Crown's middle jewel — was at risk as industry infighting pitted the owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course against horse owners over the live racing schedule. The state helped broker a deal, agreeing to provide slots money to help support day-to-day track operations and keep live racing year round.
While racing officials work to find a viable business model for the sport, they say slots revenue is helping to stabilize the industry and solidify the Preakness' future in Maryland.
Put another way: A financially healthier industry means a more stable Preakness, the state's single largest sporting event. As a last resort, the state has statutory authority to seize the tracks and the Preakness by eminent domain.
"It would be hugely discouraging to just have the Preakness and not a viable horse industry in Maryland," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But slots revenue will allow that breeding and racing industry to come back, be competitive and support the Preakness."
The racing industry has long seen slots as a way to prop up a struggling sport and remain competitive with neighboring states that opened casinos years before Maryland did.
Declines in attendance and wagering hurt the Maryland Jockey Club, which lost tens of millions of dollars over the past decade. Even Pimlico, which has been historically profitable because of the Preakness and helped financially support Laurel's operations, lost money for the first time in a decade in 2008.
When Maryland voters legalized slots gambling in a 2008 referendum, they also agreed to give horse racing a 9.5 percent cut of all the revenue slots generate, up to $140 million per year.
Only two of the five casinos allowed by law — one in Cecil County and another on the Eastern Shore — are open now. A third casino, at Arundel Mills mall, is to open in June.
Combined, the two facilities have brought in $23 million in revenue for horse racing as of April. That 9.5 percent of slots money is divided two ways: 7.5 percent for race purses and 2 percent for track capital improvements.
So far, a good amount of that 2 percent has been funneled to help the financially ailing tracks as part of the deal brokered with the state to maintain a year-round racing schedule. Last year, the state diverted $3.6 million to the Jockey Club's day-to-day operations from the slots fund for racetrack improvements.
The state also authorized an additional $6 million each this year and next for the Jockey Club from racing's slots fund, provided the track operator maintains 146 days of live racing annually, among other conditions.
Meanwhile, race purses have gone up. At Laurel Park, daily prizes rose to $185,000 from $160,000 last year. Races at Pimlico this year are dangling daily purses of up to $208,000.