- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

BALTIMORE Can a one-armed bandit become Maryland racing's white knight?

More than 100,000 will overflow Pimlico Race Course for today's 127th Preakness Stakes. War Emblem a four-length, wire-to-wire winner in the Kentucky Derby is the 3-1 second choice on the morning line, with Medaglia d'Oro the 5-2 favorite in the field of 13 3-year-olds.

The annual one-day windfall funds Maryland's year-round circuit, but the celebration comes amid aging facilities and increasing regional competition.

Maryland racing needs a major cash infusion not only to recapture its past glory, but also to provide a future against mounting gaming competition. From multistate lotteries to regional gaming, Maryland is being squeezed from its centuries-old mantle of Mid-Atlantic leader to the cusp of the minor leagues.

The one-time scourge of racing may be its savior. Slot machines are expected to be the major political topic when the Maryland legislature convenes in January. Outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's eight-year ban on new gaming could be reversed under new State House leadership.

Slots revived racing in Delaware and West Virginia. Tracks on the verge of closing are more successful than ever. Delaware Park in Wilmington has the best racing in the Mid-Atlantic. Since slots arrived in 1995, daily purses have risen from $92,000 to $250,000 to leap past Maryland's by nearly $100,000. Many Maryland horses now race in Delaware, leaving smaller local fields that attract less wagering. The steady trickle eventually builds to a major revenue loss.

Maryland racing leaders once saw slots as supplemental income to pay for major projects. Now they're vital for self-preservation.

"If someone waved a magic wand and said there was going to be no casino gambling or slots anywhere in the United States, that would be fine with us. We'd do just fine," said Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis. "The problem is, it's done on a case-by-case basis, and we're in the eye of the hurricane here with our most immediate neighbors having the benefit of this competitive tool.

"If we get the same benefits Delaware and West Virginia have to provide funding to revitalize our facilities and make capital improvements, then Maryland racing can be at the head of the nation's elite. If not, we can be successful, but we can't be successful employing the same business model of having two facilities and running year-round."

However, gaining slot approval will be complicated. The coming gubernatorial election has Democratic front-runner Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend opposing slots, while potential Democratic rival Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Republican challenger Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. endorse them. Several state delegates who were strong racing advocates aren't seeking re-election, forcing racing leaders to re-educate the legislature that has provided $2 million to $10 million annually in racing subsidies while the slot issue remained idle.

"The whole issue of slots is extremely political," Mr. De Francis said. "There are people who are fundamentally opposed to gambling. They want to keep slots out at any price, and if the price means we sacrifice or dramatically restructure the state's racing industry, then so be it. Racing is just a collateral casualty of the battle to keep slots out of Maryland. It really represents a pretty dramatic fork in the road."

Slot revenues won't nearly rival the lucrative windfalls received by Delaware and West Virginia tracks, either. Several legislators have said the state would gain an increased share. There are also several plans to permit slots outside the state's four tracks.

"Racing, hopefully, will get a significant piece to let the industry flourish," said Alan Foreman, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) counsel, "but we're not so naive to believe all the money will come to the racing industry."

Meanwhile, local racing is simply trying to survive. Major renovations for outdated Pimlico and Laurel Park are pending while the jockey club was forced to spend $7 million over two years merely for stopgap maintenance that doesn't increase attendance or wagering. Blue-sky spending for programs like one "supertrack" to attract the nation's best stables with bigger purses await the slot issue's resolution.

"We're in a holding pattern," said former Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang. "You can do all those wonderful things with m-o-n-e-y. This is a larger industry than football and baseball, and it's year-round, but we serve at the mercy of the state."

If slots aren't approved, racing leaders believe the year-round circuit will degrade dramatically. A probable shorter schedule would hurt many of the 20,000 employed by racing.

"We could run 30 days in the spring around the Preakness and 30 days around the Maryland Million in the fall and the company would make lots of money and make a lot of physical improvements, so there would be palaces and I could take long vacations," Mr. De Francis said.

"Unfortunately, the people that would suffer would be the tens of thousands of people who make their year-round living from the Maryland racing industry. The MTHA's rallying cry is year-round racing or war and understandably so, but we can't maintain this business model in the face of this competition," he said.


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