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Triple Crown Jewel Lifts Tarnished Maryland Horse Racing Industry

Shackleford, right, with Jesus Castanon aboard, works down the stretch in front of Astrology, with Mike Smith aboard, during the 136th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, May 21, 2011
Shackleford, right, with Jesus Castanon aboard, works down the stretch in front of Astrology, with Mike Smith aboard, during the 136th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, May 21, 2011

The 136th running of the Preakness Stakes has been hailed as a huge success for horse racing in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland. The Preakness is the second leg of the three horse races that make up what is called the Triple Crown.

More than 107,000 people attended the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore to watch Shackleford speed to victory on Saturday. Government leaders and industry experts are hopeful this year's Preakness will bring a boost to the state's struggling horse industry.

Music filled the air. Colorful fancy hats dominated the view and money flowed just as fast as bettors could say, "Horse Number 5."

The crowd at Pimlico race track was the seventh largest in Preakness race history, leaving industry specialists like Bill Nack, the author of the book Secretariat, The Making of a Champion, hopeful that Maryland's declining horse racing industry might be ready to rebound.

"I think racing is going to experience a comeback," he said. "You know, there is just too much going for it. America has always had a special relationship with the horse. The horse settled the West. They have been a part of our cultural heritage, and when people see horses they have good feelings."

But Maryland horse racing needs more than good feelings to survive. Only a small portion of Preakness fans come back to Maryland's tracks during the rest of the year. That, along with poor planning and a lack of expected revenue from slot-machine gambling in the state, has left the industry with a desperate need for more money.

Last week, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed a bill that allows money set aside for racetrack improvements to go to operational uses, including paying the industry's 28,000 full-time workers. The deal gives the state's horse racing industry much needed revenue through 2013. But Governor O'Malley tells VOA the horse racing industry must come together and figure out a long-term strategy for survival.

"We should not be saving an industry, as important as this is, every year in the closing bells of the legislative session," said O'Malley. "We need a solution that will last for a generation or more, and I hope that is what the industry comes up with."

In the state where the American thoroughbred horse industry was founded, the Maryland Jockey Club has been racing since 1743 and began running the Preakness Stakes more than 130 years ago.

Club President Tom Chuckas said horsemen, breeders and other industry leaders will spend the next few months crafting a solution to fund the sport. "The goal is how do you make the rest of the year profitable," he said.

Chuckas said the Maryland Jockey Club aims to keep current clients happy, while searching for new blood to invest in the business.

The Club has reached out to the ad agency Elevation to bring in new fans to the Preakness. Elevation President Jim Learned said they successfully tapped into the global appeal of horse racing through projects like the International Pavilion, a tent at the finish line where an ambassador from a selected host country can come to the race and showcase that country's culture.

Last year's host country was Spain. This year, Mexico shared its tequila and unique cuisine with guests, including foreign diplomats, Governor O'Malley and actor Woody Harrelson.

"In South America, Latin America and in Europe it is a very, very popular sport," said Learned. "This event itself is carried live on television in various countries. It has millions and millions of viewers, so it made total sense for us to extend it out."

Nack said another solution could be cutting the number of competition days.

"They should be racing in shorter, more colorful bursts," he said. "They are getting a lot of resistance from the horsemen who want to race all year because that is how they make a living, but I do not think Maryland racing can survive in that configuration."

Chuckas said the success surrounding this year's Preakness is a reason for hope. "It sets the tone for the whole entire year, and usually how the Preakness goes, the rest of the year goes."

Others in the state whose livelihoods depend on horse racing are betting the industry can bounce back before it is too weak to recover.