The Pimlico Race Course weathervane

It’s difficult to imagine what horse racing in North America is going to look like 10 or 15 years from now. This much seems certain: It’s going to look different.

It is almost certain that some tracks will follow the same path as now-defunct Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, Calder, Arlington Park, and others before them. In some cases, the land is too valuable to justify standalone horse racing operations that eke out low-margin profits. A growing number of racetracks connected to slots parlors are owned by casino companies that would like nothing better than to decouple the two gambling activities. That spells disaster for racing. And then there is the challenge of societal changes where more than a few people view the use of animals for sports or entertainment as cruel. That is a real threat in some states.

The only new tracks built in recent years are those that are coupled by necessity with casinos. Horse racing proponents in Georgia continue to push for legalization of pari-mutuel wagering so a racetrack can be built in the Peach State. But wasn’t that tried in Alabama with the colossal failure of the Birmingham Turf Club more than 30 years ago? What would make Georgia any different?

No state’s horse racing picture seems brighter than Kentucky, which has solidified its future with races from the past. Historical horse racing, whose legality was very much in doubt just a few years ago, is now the foundation for a strong purse structure for horse owners and a profitable bottom line for the racetracks. That’s all thanks to state legislators who recognized the importance of Kentucky’s signature industry and made the historical horse racing machines legal, expanding their reach to virtually every corner of the state.

Churchill Downs in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, has been regularly expanding its hospitality offerings and will continue to do so for as long as enough people put America’s most famous horse race on their bucket list.

The future of the host sites for the second and third legs of the Triple Crown is not quite as certain.

Pimlico Race Course in Maryland is an aging relic that needs to be demolished and replaced if the Preakness is to remain in Baltimore. Legislation in 2020 authorized financing of up to $375 million to rebuild Pimlico and renovate Laurel Park, its sister track 25 miles down the road, but those projects have stalled during the coronavirus pandemic and there is no firm timetable or definitive plan for what those tracks will look like.

Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., where the final Triple Crown leg, the Belmont Stakes, is run, has already undergone a partial transformation. Just behind the massive grandstand is the UBS Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders. The Arena will also be a concert venue, with restaurants and bars expected to spring up around the property at some point.

But that’s just the first phase of what could be major changes at Belmont Park. The editorial board of Newsday wrote recently about a potential new grandstand that could be used for winter racing with the anticipated closure of Aqueduct. A tunnel into the infield could help accommodate the large crowds that Belmont Park gets one day a year on Belmont Stakes Day, especially if a new grandstand is smaller than the current one. It’s also hoped that a new structure would bring Belmont Park back into the picture as a potential host site for the Breeders’ Cup.

Those who long for the good old days are going to be disappointed, because they’re not coming back. But change isn’t necessarily bad; it is, however, inevitable.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

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