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Slots overtake horse races

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Maryland horse racing officials have said repeatedly that slots are needed to breathe new life into their industry. They said competition from Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where expanded gambling subsidizes purses and attracts the best horses, hurts Maryland.

But the experience of those states demonstrates that slots have done nothing to attract more people to horse racing, the Baltimore Sun reported yesterday.

"There's no correlation," said George Sidiropolis, West Virginia Racing Commission chairman. "It's inverse, in fact."

In Delaware, for example, 11 years after it allowed slot machines at its racetracks, hardly anyone is there to watch the horses, much less bet on them.

One recent day, fewer than 100 people were sprinkled among thousands of empty seats at the track. Statistics show that live betting on thoroughbred horse racing in Delaware has dropped by 40 percent since slots were legalized in 1996.

Six months after slots went online at Philadelphia Park in Pennsylvania, betting was down by 20 percent. West Virginia's wagering handles went up sharply a few years ago when the state's tracks began broadcasting their races nationally, but betting has since leveled off and begun to decrease.

In Maryland, pressure has been growing for months as many lawmakers, particularly in the state Senate, have looked at slots as a way to reduce the $1.5 billion budget shortfall Maryland faces next year.

But it was an announcement this month by the Maryland Jockey Club that it would cut purses at its races for the rest of the year to make ends meet that led Gov. Martin O'Malley to say slots were necessary to save the state's historic racing industry.

"All these things are threatened by their inability to compete with tracks in states around us who are able to offer slots," Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, said at the time. "We can't expect them to thrive, or even survive ... if we handicap them and don't allow them the tools that the tracks in all the other states are using."

The tracks in neighboring states are doing well in the sense that horsemen and jockeys are competing for three times as much money as they did before slots, and track owners are making millions. But that has done nothing to stem the declining popularity of horse racing.

"This place used to be mobbed," Jean Carter of Wilmington said while going through racing forms in Delaware Park's nearly empty grandstand before the start of a race. "Either people went broke, or a lot like to go to the slots instead of horses."

Lou Raffetto, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, acknowledges that racing has declined in neighboring states, but he says that won't happen in Maryland, because the state has a horse racing tradition and the farms, breeding operations, infrastructure and committed track owners to match.

In the neighboring states, Mr. Raffetto said, "They really don't care."

In Delaware and West Virginia, marketing for the tracks emphasizes slots, not horses. Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia rents billboards in Baltimore that advertise the number of slot machines there and tout the ease of parking. But they don't mention the races.

In Delaware, simulcasting boosted betting revenue in the 1990s, but it has declined at roughly the same pace as live wagering in the past five years. Since 2002, all horse betting has dropped by 20 percent in Delaware.

"I've been in the business over 30 years, and I'm not naive," Mr. Raffetto said. "I really believe the difference in Maryland is going to be that the people that run Maryland, and I'm referring to all the people involved in the day-to-day operations, care about what racing looks like, care about where the program is headed.

"It's going to be not just about slots raising purses to enable the horsemen to make a better living," he added. "It's going to be about bringing people back out to the facility and showing them what a great sport this is."

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