Md. Racing Industry Holds Rally for Slots

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Seeking to make sure its plight is not forgotten amid the fractious political infighting characterizing the debate on slot machines, the Maryland racing industry shut down live racing and simulcasting for one day and staged a spirited rally yesterday morning outside the State House.

Hundreds of trainers, jockeys, backstretch employees, unionized track workers and racing officials traveled by bus to Annapolis from Laurel Park, Pimlico and the Bowie Training Center, carrying signs stating "Slots Yes! Save Racetrack Jobs" and "Keep the Preakness in Maryland."

Inside the State House, a joint meeting of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee opened a hearing on a bill supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) that would legalize slots and provide $100 million for race purses and breeders' incentives annually.

The once-robust state racing industry has pleaded its case to legislators for years, first sounding the alarm about the shifting power among mid-Atlantic racing states when Delaware legalized slots in 1994 to rescue its failing racetracks and West Virginia followed suit.

Now, with slot machines also up and running at Pennsylvania tracks, Maryland, once the dominant racing and breeding state in the region, has been surrounded. Larger out-of-state race purses and incentives for breeders have devastated the state's industry.

"We're in a free fall," Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said in testimony. "We've been before this committee . . . for the last 13 years. We're not at a crossroads; we're at the end of the road."

Stakes races at Maryland thoroughbred tracks have all but been eliminated, except for major events such as the Preakness and those restricted to state-bred runners. In June, the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park and Pimlico, cut racing dates and slashed purses by $2,000 for all races. At last month's meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, Laurel requested the right to host 60 days of live racing at its upcoming winter meet, a reduction of 15 live race days.

"If we don't get slots, it's our death knell," said breeder Barbara Smith of Lothian.

"We need it bad," trainer Eddie Gaudet said. "Why are we shipping horses [to race at] Delaware and Charles Town? They say we're going to create crime with slots. Go to Delaware. Go to Charles Town. See if there's crime. They're wheeling in old ladies in wheelchairs."

At the hearing, racing proponents detailed what they said was at stake: 6,000 to 9,000 jobs, $600 million to $1 billion in economic activity, 685,000 acres of equine farmland and open space.

O'Malley's plan calls for up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations in the state. Laurel Park is considered a prime candidate for slots, but is not a guaranteed location. Slots would not be installed at Pimlico Race Course, although that track's Park Heights neighborhood would receive funding for revitalization under the plan.

Developer William Rickman, who owns Delaware Park, would like to receive a slots license for his Ocean Downs harness track on the Eastern Shore. While he spoke in support of the bill, he warned that a slots parlor located too close to Delaware Park might escalate a gaming fight between the states. He reminded legislators that Delaware is one of four states that possess sports gambling rights, grandfathered in when a federal law made it illegal in 1992.

Rickman also said the 30 percent share of slots revenue the bill designates for license holders needs to be increased to cover building costs, promotion and other expenses.

He was most adamant about the desperate nature of Maryland's racing industry. "Any horse racing facility that does not participate in this will not survive," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company