An earlier version of this article did not accurately describe the possible venues included in a Maryland referendum on slot machine gambling. The referendum on November's ballot asks whether the state should legalize as many as 15,000 slot machines at five racetrack and other locations in Baltimore and in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
At Horse Race, Slots Sold With T-Shirts, Stickers
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Maryland's looming ballot fight over bringing slots to racetracks meant that politics played a bigger role than usual yesterday at Pimlico in the annual running of the Preakness Stakes. Campaign workers pressing for slots staked out turnstiles all morning, slapping stickers on thousands of arriving racegoers. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and pro-slots fundraisers glad-handed potential donors in corporate tents.
The scene, a new experience for Preakness fans because slots legislation usually died before race day, foreshadowed a costly battle for pro-slots votes in the coming November referendum.
Yesterday's electioneering, however, was a decidedly one-sided effort, as anti-slots groups skipped the 133rd stakes, calculating that it could be a waste of time to take their anti-gambling message to thousands of Marylanders and out-of-state visitors already sympathetic to horse racing. Yet attempts to convey any political message yesterday seemed to have little effect.
"Free T-shirts, support the slots referendum!" yelled Steven Heinl, 23, to quizzical looks and occasional blank stares from passersby as Preakness fans quickly ceded the day to bourbon-fueled Black-Eyed Susans and flying beer-can fights in the infield.
"This is about what?" responded Greg Galperine, 19, when asked about the crisp, new white T-shirt slung over his shoulder. "I see 'education,' 'health care,' 'jobs,' nothing about slots," Galperine said, holding up the T-shirt and reading it aloud. The signs and T-shirts, purchased by Pimlico owner Magna Entertainment and stamped with the logo for the pro-slots Maryland For Our Future, did not make clear that they were promoting slots.
But track owners say bringing slots to Maryland tracks is crucial if the racing industry is to compete with slots at tracks in nearby Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The printed literature handed out by campaign workers also did not make clear that slots were the issue.
The fliers touted the referendum "For Education, For Healthcare, For Jobs, For No New Taxes, Vote FOR The Referendum." The November ballot measure will let voters decide whether to amend the state's constitution to allow 15,000 slot machines at five race tracks. Pimlico will not be eligible, but Laurel Park, another Magna-owned track, will bid to become one of the five, said Scott Borgemenke, Magna executive vice president for racing.
"It's not a bad idea, I guess" Galperine said, swigging the last of a can of Miller Lite as he read the flier and walked into the track just before 11 a.m. "I just thought it was a free T-shirt."
Seven of 10 other race fans interviewed knew that much or less about the T-shirts and stickers they wore. Some used the T-shirts as towels to wipe down after beer baths in the infield.
Chris Duvall, 28, of Montgomery County, didn't know specifics about the November ballot measure, but was among the most passionately in favor: "Everybody's got it but us," he said, shirtless in a lawn chair waving an imitation Cuban cigar. Duvall and two of his friends had a living room-like set up, complete with a cooler for an ottoman, behind a row of urinals. Occasionally, a less-than-sober patron would attempt to run along the roofs of the urinals. As is custom, bystanders throw beer cans.
With slots money "maybe they could make this place around here a little nicer. We were just at Churchill Downs, around there, the streets are all beautiful. Here, you might not make it down the street," Duvall said.
Next to Duvall's group was an inflatable pool filled with hundreds of cans of Bud Light. Every few minutes the cans would became ammunition when a shouting bunch about 20 yards away would begin throwing half-empty cans of beer in their direction.
Before the race, Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, said scenes like that make campaigning at Pimlico useless.
"This would be as if you were sending the League of Women Voters to talk to people at Mardi Gras," Meisner said. "What am I going to do? Talk to the guy who's running along the top of the urinals as he's being pelted with beer cans? It's not the place for a meaningful discussion with the citizenry about the future of the constitution of Maryland and revenue policy."