BALTIMORE — Legendary handicapper Duke Pollack sat at his usual table in the clubhouse at Pimlico Race Course yesterday for the opening of the spring racing season, but he wouldn’t wager on the sport’s future in Maryland without the boost of slot-machine revenue.
“They need slots for the purses to be able to compete with Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania,” said Mr. Pollack, 78, who has owned thoroughbreds and been a fixture at the track since he was 16.
“If you had horses and you wanted to run them for the most amount of money, you wouldn’t run them here,” he said.
Yesterday, horse owners, breeders, trainers and racecourse executives used the word “disappointed” when talking about the Maryland General Assembly’s inability to pass a slots bill again this year.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, campaigned on legalizing slots to salvage the state’s lagging horse industry, but his plan has been killed in the Democrat-controlled legislature three years in a row.
The state’s share of slots revenue would have funded public schools. The horse industry’s cut would have gone to the prize money for winning races. Racing insiders say smaller purses mean fewer horses at the track, fewer people in the stands and the continued decline of an industry in Maryland that predates the Revolutionary War.
Mr. Ehrlich has said it is only a matter of time before slots-subsidized racing in surrounding states drains away Maryland’s estimated 20,000 horse-racing jobs and persuades Maryland breeders to sell out and allow 20,000 acres of pastures to turn into housing developments and strip malls.
“Maryland is still the premier repository for bloodlines, but that is going to change,” said Cricket Goodall, with the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “If we don’t have slots, you are going to see farms closing up. You will see areas that were horse farms that will be developed.”
Some of the state’s top trainers already have relocated.
Tony Dutrow has moved his operation to Pennsylvania, where the legislature has approved slots.
Lawrence E. Murray, whose horse Nashly’s Friend lost her maiden race yesterday at Pimlico, said he has considered chasing the larger purses in nearby states with slots revenue.
“There are very few reasons to stay in Maryland these days,” he said. “Everyone around is going to have better purses than us. A lot of people are going to suffer.”
Nashly’s Friend owner Howard Bender said he has thought about selling his Glade Valley Farms in Walkersville, Md., where he employs about 30 people for breeding and training race horses.
“It looks like Maryland — the people in Annapolis — don’t really care about the horse business. It’s a shame,” Mr. Bender said. “Everybody has been hanging on thinking [slots] will get through. Who would have thought West Virginia would have better purses than Maryland?”
The perception that the state’s horse industry is in peril helped fuel speculation yesterday that the owner of Pimlico was looking to sell.
James L. Gagliano, executive vice president of Maryland racing operations for Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, spent the day refuting that report. “The only thing we are selling is tickets to the Preakness,” he said of the Triple Crown race next month.
Still, Mr. Gagliano said he has serious concerns about the future of racing in Maryland. He looked at the tote board and noted that only seven horses were running in the eighth race. The field for each race should be at least eight horses. The stables at Pimlico and Laurel also have about 200 fewer horses than they had this time last year, a 15 percent decline.
“The competition that we face as an industry is significant, and it is growing in West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York,” he said. “And it is going to get amplified.”