Racetracks Might Not Push Slots

Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland has lost business to tracks in neighboring states with slots and higher purses.
Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland has lost business to tracks in neighboring states with slots and higher purses. (2003 Photo By Frank Johnston/Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

As both sides gird for a November referendum on slot machines in Maryland, some of the biggest potential beneficiaries of expanded gambling -- racetrack owners -- are hedging their bets on whether they will take part in the campaign.

Slots proponents have argued for years that revenue from the machines is needed to prop up Maryland's ailing horse-racing industry, and two existing tracks would be among the sites eligible to receive slots licenses, if voters approve the ballot measure.

But representatives of both tracks -- which collectively have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions in recent years -- said in interviews that they have not decided whether, or to what extent, to get involved in what some say could be a $15 million campaign.

Potomac developer William Rickman, who owns the Ocean Downs track on the Eastern Shore, questioned the need to be active in the effort, citing polls that have shown that majorities of Marylanders favor the legalization of slots.

"It's going to take a lot of bad press to turn public opinion around," Rickman said, adding that his participation in the campaign could be awkward because his track would later have to bid for a slots license from the state.

A spokesman for Magna Entertainment, a Canadian company that owns Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, also cited the bidding process as a potential impediment to its involvement.

Under legislation passed last fall, Anne Arundel would be home to one of five slots locations determined by a commission whose members have yet to be appointed. Venues within two miles of Route 295 would be allowed to bid, meaning Laurel would be eligible but not guaranteed a license.

"Are there concerns that Laurel is not the guaranteed site? Obviously," said Scott Borgemenke, Magna's executive vice president for racing. Borgemenke said Magna would like to see more support from the surrounding community for putting slots at Laurel Park.

And he suggested the company, which is struggling financially, would try to gauge the referendum's prospects before deciding how engaged to become in a campaign that he does not expect to start in earnest before the Preakness Stakes in May. That storied race takes place at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, another Magna-owned track.

"It's awfully early to decide whether this has a chance or not," Borgemenke said.

The equivocation of the track owners has alarmed some in the racing industry, who argue that passage of the referendum is essential for Maryland to compete with surrounding states, where slots proceeds already supplement racing purses.

"This is going to be a very expensive campaign," said Gerard Evans, a lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Without the full financial participation of all the stakeholders, we simply won't have the money to do the job."

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