- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

BALTIMORE

Cars packed the parking lots and side streets. Trains and buses were flooded with passengers. The infield and grandstands were jammed. The wait at lines at betting windows and concession stands lasted longer than the races.

Yesterday was “Super Saturday” for Maryland racing. The 131st Preakness Stakes — won by Bernardini, but marred by the career-ending and potentially life-threatening injury to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro — drew a record crowd of 118,402 to Pimlico Race Course, the 136-year old racetrack along the city’s Northern Parkway.

Today, though, reality returns. There will be no traffic. The infield will be closed. Lines will be short. And the quality of horse talent will be far below that of Preakness stars Barbaro, Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint.

Maryland racing still has a place on the Mid-Atlantic scene, but its position is becoming more perilous.

“Preakness Day is the anomaly for the industry in Maryland,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “[Today] is the harsh reality. People are struggling to stay here. They don’t want to move, but it’s becoming a slow erosion. Each year we don’t get slots, a few more people give up and move to Pennsylvania or Delaware.”

Attendance has declined 50 percent at Pimlico and Laurel Park since 1989, according to the Maryland Jockey Club. The amount of money wagered dropped to $337 million last year from $433 million in 1999. Several of Maryland’s top trainers still are headquartered in the state, but they more often are sending their horses to run in richer races elsewhere.

And Maryland racing faces ever-increasing competition from out-of-state tracks that have slot machines.

Racetracks in the neighboring states of West Virginia and Delaware added slots in the past decade, generating revenue used to increase the purses awarded to winning horses and attract better fields. Harness and thoroughbred tracks in seven states already have slots or video lottery terminals, and tracks in three other states, including nearby Pennsylvania, plan to add gambling as well.

The fate of slots in Maryland, meanwhile, remains uncertain.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, pledged when he took office four years ago to bring slots to Maryland tracks. However, a measure to approve slots died in the General Assembly in March, the fourth straight year gambling legislation failed.

Election-year politics perhaps played a role.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat, was a slots ally for Mr. Ehrlich the past three years, pushing legislation through the Senate.

This year, Mr. Miller, who obviously wants to see a Democrat defeat Mr. Ehrlich this year, canceled a hearing on slots set for mid-March, effectively giving the legislation a quick death in 2006.

Those who want slot machines at Pimlico, Laurel Park and other locations in the state cite the need to create new revenue streams to increase purses and breeding funds and in turn help keep the state’s top trainers and owners from leaving.

Opponents argue that the tracks need only to be better managed to improve their financial situation. They also say they fear the return of criminal activity and political impropriety that marked the state’s last foray into slot machines in the 1960s.

“The costs will far outweigh the benefits for the state,” said Barbara Knicklebein of No Casino Maryland. “We realize that busloads of people in the state frequently go to Dover and Delaware Park and planeloads of people fly from Baltimore to Las Vegas and Reno to gamble.

“But if you’re going to have it in your own back yard, the tendency to gamble is going to be greater and the tendency to gamble with more frequency is going to be greater.”

The tendency of many states, dating back 10 years, has been to endorse slot machines as a way to keep tracks open. Fifteen thoroughbred tracks in seven states and seven harness tracks in three states have slot machines or video gambling. Fourteen more tracks plan to add gambling.

“I firmly believe that gaming is going to be a part of every [year-round] racetrack in the United States within the next 10 years, because the tracks that don’t have gaming will be hard-pressed to compete with those that do because of the purses,” said Skip Carlson, vice president of Saratoga Gaming and Racing, a harness track in upstate New York. “I know it would be successful [in Maryland]. It’s a proven commodity.”

Maryland thoroughbred racing has a year-round schedule at Laurel and Pimlico. The Maryland Jockey Club reduced the live racing dates this year from 220 to 180. The fewer racing days for Pimlico (31 this year) and increased wagering on Maryland races via simulcasting — it’s up 55.1 percent for Laurel Park races this winter and spring — has resulted in an increase in purses.

The daily average at Pimlico this spring is $215,000, up from $173,000 last year. Last Sunday, Pimlico’s average race purse of $19,555 was in line with Charles Town (W.Va.) Races and Slots ($18,300) and Delaware Park ($18,150), both of which have slot machines.

However, those purses aren’t close to those at heavyweight tracks such as Belmont Park in New York ($46,333 per race) and California’s Hollywood Park ($38,333), neither of which has slot machines.

The reality — there’s that word again — is that Maryland soon will face more competition from tracks in neighboring states. Philadelphia Park and Penn National plan to install slot machines later this year or in 2007, allowing those tracks to offer purses double what Maryland can award.

Slot machines and video gambling are proven moneymakers throughout the country.

“Different states have different needs,” said Eric Schippers of Penn National Gaming, which owns five tracks, two with slot machines. “It’s not for every state. Some decide it’s not what they want to look at for economic development. But in those states that have [adopted slots], it’s been very, very successful.”

The track in Charles Town, which opened in 1933, was ready to close its doors permanently in 1994. The facility’s owners were struggling to find money to reopen the track, and the county’s voters had defeated a referendum on slot machines. Two years later, slot machines were approved and Penn National Gaming bought the track.

The track has prospered. Charles Town Races and Slots has nearly 4,500 slot machines and is in its fifth phase of additions and improvements. Its purses jumped from $19.9 million in 2000 to $40.4 million last year.

“There was trepidation about slots coming,” said Roger Ramey, vice president of public affairs at Charles Town. “The people in town didn’t know what to expect, and they were told by people who were against it that the slots would bring crime and all kinds of bad things. It just hasn’t happened.”

Success stories such as Charles Town don’t deter slots opponents in Maryland. One Web site, www.stopslots md.com, lists 21 organizations that have joined forces and 35 reasons to oppose gambling expansion in the state.

Stop Slots in Maryland was spearheaded by Baltimore stockbroker Aaron Meisner, who lives seven blocks from Pimlico and got involved in the debate four years ago. If slots return, he fears the state will a return to the shady years of 1950 to 1968, when nearly 5,000 slot machines operated legally in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.

“The way that’s it so similar to the way it’s been and will always be is the issue of corruption,” Mr. Meisner said. “There were allegations back then of envelopes of cash being passed on the floor of the House in return for votes. You had all kinds of bribery and violence. Now, the bad guys wear $1,000 suits, and the gambling lobbyists spend $5 million.”

Mr. Meisner said he wants Pimlico to remain in business and is optimistic that Magna Entertainment Corp., which bought a controlling interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park in 2002, has the right intentions.

Magna and its chairman, Frank Stronach, publicly have stayed away from the slots debate in Maryland. Mr. Stronach has also stayed mum on the possibility of moving the Preakness from Pimlico.

“Fundamentally, I would like to see the tradition continue,” Mr. Meisner said. “But the reality is, horse racing is not the business it once was. And converting racetracks to casinos does not help in preserving the nostalgic feel of a racetrack.”

Through Mr. Meisner has been involved in the issue for four years, Miss Knicklebein joined the fight against slot machines in 1995 when the issue revolved around casinos only. Back then, the racing industry opposed slot machines.

“I’m not surprised it hasn’t happened, because we have a lot of people in our network across the state that have made big waves,” said Miss Knicklebein, owner of a small business in Glen Burnie. “We’re really pleased we’ve been successful year after year. We feel that it’s one more family that we’ve prevented from being destroyed by the negative impact of gambling.”

The pro-slots groups say that keeping slots out of Maryland doesn’t keep the state’s residents from gambling.

“The thing that never comes up is, the people are gambling anyway; they’re just not doing it here,” said Maryland-based trainer Michael Trombetta. “That’s what really kills me. People say, ‘Well, we can’t have people doing that.’ But my mother-in-law goes to Charles Town to play slots. She has fun. People aren’t spending their grocery money or their mortgage payment. It’s a source of enjoyment. The state is missing the whole thing.”

Local thoroughbred owner Ted Theos lives in Baltimore and, like Miss Goodall, thinks the state will lose its top talent if purses don’t keep up.

“It would help the industry, and I sure hope it happens,” he said. “If we don’t get it, all of our trainers would leave for the better money. It’s a must. … I guess everybody is waiting for the right time to pass it so they can take credit for it.”

The upcoming governor’s election undoubtedly will affect the debate. The Democratic challengers to Mr. Ehrlich hold diverging positions: Martin O’Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, is described by one anti-slots lobbyist as “lukewarm” on the issue, and Douglas M. Duncan as “100 percent against it.”

If Mr. Ehrlich wins re-election, it is likely Mr. Miller would swing back to a pro-slots stance, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch would remain an obstacle.

The anti-slots organizations won’t publicly endorse a candidate.

“We’re going to encourage the candidates to understand that when they bring slots back into the debate, they’re putting their head in what I call the slot-machine wood chipper,” Mr. Meisner said. “It is not a way to move Maryland forward. We’ve wasted a lot of time the last four years bickering over slots.”

If slot machines are ultimately approved, Miss Goodall said it will be time well-spent, not wasted.

“It’s been frustrating for a lot of reasons,” she said. “It’s hard for us to understand how the state politicians can watch other states implement it and reap the benefits. … It’s hard to see all of this money flowing out of our state.”

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