The sport of kings has been on a slow gallop in the '80s, a long way from the glory days when it had no rival for a high roller's money. But one Maryland race track has just picked up the pace with a $2 million, high-tech facility that may make systems analysts out of the local touts. "In the old days a race track operator would just hang out a sign that said 'Racing Today,' " says Frank DeFrancis, owner of Laurel Race Course in Laurel, Md., and its spectacular new Sports Palace. "Horse racing was the only game in town. It would have taken a clairvoyant to predict that someday lotteries, casinos and the NFL would be coming."
The Sports Palace—which has the look and feel of a plush Las Vegas casino—features the world's first computerized handicapping center, a comprehensive video racing library and two elegant theater lounges with screens for viewing the races on the track outside as well as other sporting events throughout the country. "With the computer center, we wanted to bring racing into the '80s," says Sports Palace designer Lynda O'Dea, who is also the track's marketing executive. "We are saying to young people, 'This is not the place your grandfather goes to for entertainment after he retires.' "
A bank of 12 computer terminals can provide the Laurel horseplayer with thousands of bits of data on trainers, jockeys, horses and speed ratings within seconds. "Sometimes the stats that come up explode popular myths," says Dennis Smoter, who manages the center and spends four hours a day updating the racing data. "For example, people think when [leading Maryland trainer] King Leatherbury drops a horse in class, that's an excellent bet. Yet Leatherbury wins only 18 percent of the time, and the average payoff is $1.65." And players can use the computer to sift arcane pieces of information. Want to know how Leatherbury does with 3-year-olds on the turf? Need more details? How about when those 3-year-olds are ridden by jockey Donnie Miller? The answers are only moments away.
The Sports Palace is also working to get the old railbirds to try out the new computers. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the Palace offers senior citizens a 50% discount on the usual $6 weekday admission ($7 on weekends). But do senior citizens and high tech mix? Well, maybe. At the gentle urging of a computer assistant one gray-haired patron hesitatingly put a finger on the keyboard while protesting, "I'm not too good at figuring out these things."
His leeriness was echoed by other Palace patrons, who believe that if a mortal lock is to be found, it will show up in the Daily Racing Form, not on some floppy disk. At the video library, fans can request a tape of any race run in Maryland in the past year and within two minutes watch three replays of that race—including one from the head-on stewards' angle—on one of 11 monitors. For the "trip handicappers," whose system is to study a race, note any horse who encountered trouble and then use that information in handicapping the horse's next race, access to the tapes is a new and powerful edge. "If the Form comments that a horse had a 'rough trip' in his last race," says video librarian Christina Gino, "that tape is guaranteed to be a hot item."
The Sports Palace wasn't built with just the handicapper in mind, however. Two 15-foot projection screens feature the day's top sporting events, interrupted only at post time for the Laurel races. Other sporting events are shown in the four minitheaters, each of which has a small seating area and a 48-inch screen. In addition, three eight-foot message boards flash sports news and up-to-the-minute scores of games around the country, including the latest Las Vegas betting lines.
Creature comforts aren't ignored, either. Food and beverages are available at tables throughout the lounge. "We wanted the sports fans to leave their living rooms on Sunday and come here," says O'Dea. Although the clientele is predominantly male, O'Dea hopes to get football widows to join their husbands at the Sports Palace and thus designed the color scheme (mauve and gray) to appeal to women. It has had its desired effect: Sunday attendance at Laurel has increased 35% over the last year, and roughly one third of the customers are women.
In a sport that has experienced a steady decline in attendance for the past three or four decades—mainly because, as DeFrancis says, "the industry took too much for granted for too long"—the Sports Palace is a sign of new life. On days the track is dark, the Palace is used to hold racing seminars, with films and lectures to initiate new fans. Years ago that education would have been provided by fathers and grandfathers, but not today. Pass Catcher to most young sports fans suggests Steve Largent or John Stall-worth, not the winner of the '71 Belmont Stakes.
Laurel is one of the first race tracks reaching out to attract the general sports fan, not just the railbirds. Altogether the Sports Palace appears to have a winning combination.