- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

BALTIMORE — More than 100,000 fans will jam Pimlico Race Course for today’s 130th Preakness Stakes to see if Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo can win the second leg of the Triple Crown. They’ll shriek for the nation’s best horses, wear dapper clothes and remember when the Saturday card at the racetrack was the fashionable place to be seen.

And after the 6:15 p.m. race, many won’t return for another year.

The Preakness has become an annual reminder of Maryland racing’s steady decline. The former lion of Mid-Atlantic racing is now an afterthought. Many top stables have left for Delaware or West Virginia with their slot machine-infused purses. Pennsylvania will poach more breeders and horsemen when it adds slots next year.

All that’s left of Maryland racing is one major event and two aging facilities that look older each year.

“The boat is definitely taking on water,” said Mike Pons, business manager of Country Life Farm in Bel Air, Md. “I’ve seen [declining] things happen I would have never thought would occur. The industry keeps telling the legislature that the sky is falling, but they don’t want to do anything for us.”

The raging slot-machine debate has lasted nearly a decade, and the absence of a resolution has long been blamed for the decline of the state’s racing industry at a cost of more than $1.5 billion annually.

Certainly, the absence of slots has played a major role. Delaware purses have increased fourfold since adding slots in 1996. Charles Town Races in West Virginia went from shuttered to a mini-Las Vegas that subsidizes racing even though less than five percent of the slot players are lured to try the horses, too.

Magna Entertainment Corp. purchased the Maryland Jockey Club’s two tracks in 2002 and promised new facilities for both Pimlico and Laurel Park. Magna Chairman Frank Stronach dismissed slots as irrelevant to his company’s plans at the time, and Magna followed through with a $20 million renovation of Laurel Park’s dirt and grass courses. However, changes to the public venues are largely cosmetic, and Magna now says it will not begin any large-scale renovations without slots.

“The slot issue continues to be tied to the viability of racing in Maryland,” MJC President Joe De Francis said. “The economic reality is Magna is a public company with obligations to its stockholders and there’s no way a rational businessperson could justify making a nine-figure investment in a facility in Maryland without slots with the competition we’re facing from Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The stock holders would riot — as well they should.”

Without slots, Magna can’t fund purse increases to attract horsemen or renovate Pimlico and Laurel to attract younger customers seeking the comfort of casinos and other entertainment venues. The slot issue remains stalemated in Annapolis, so Maryland racing is again awaiting improvements that aren’t immediately forthcoming.

“Maryland is at a disadvantage because of the slot issue,” said trainer King Leatherbury, who enters Malibu Moonshine in the Preakness. “These other states are getting a jump on us and now we’re behind. [But] I’m here in Maryland. I’m going to stick with it until it either goes down the tubes or gets better.”

Trainer Robert Bailes is typical of many Maryland horsemen who are now spreading their stables throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Bailes enters Scrappy T in the Preakness from his 10-horse Bowie stable, but he also has eight horses in Delaware who wintered in New York. He can no longer survive racing year-round in Maryland.

“It’s just politics that’s killing us here in Maryland,” Bailes said. “We’re trying to get better horses and find different owners [out of state].”

Churchill Downs recently completed a $121 million renovation without slots, though. While the Kentucky breeding industry is the nation’s finest, Churchill was much like Pimlico — an aging relic desperate for a modern makeover. Mr. De Francis conceded having Twin Spires envy when he attended the Kentucky Derby earlier this month because the track had made changes that have no chance of occurring at Pimlico.

“Churchill generates a revenue stream that allows them to make this type of renovation without slots,” Mr. De Francis said. “We don’t have that same luxury in Maryland and are doubly handicapped by slots in Delaware, West Virginia and soon Pennsylvania. There’s no way a rational business person could make the same investment in Pimlico without slots.”

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