In six hours of testimony about slot machines in Annapolis the other day, the most persuasive argument against opening Maryland to a new wave of state-sponsored gambling came from Bobby Hairspray himself:
"Horse racing is done, let it go, let it die," the governor said. "It's generational. If young people don't want to go to the track, let it go." Gov. Bob Ehrlich compared the nostalgic urge to buck up the state's horse racing industry with the arguments we heard not long ago from tobacco farmers, and he reminded us that "we're letting that go."
Unfortunately, the governor halted this logical line of thought and called it "a legitimate view that I reject wholeheartedly." Then he was off to the races, portraying the state as a patient in intensive care with two options: slots or taxes, the latter of which he considers far worse than death.
Ehrlich's dramatic appearance in the well of the House Ways and Means Committee chamber kicked off a cavalcade of desperation in which it became clear that the racetrack companies are calling the shots, deciding how much money they'll make and how little they'll permit the state to take home to the kiddies. The most depressing moment came when Maryland's secretary of education, Nancy S. Grasmick, had the gall to trumpet her support for slots "for Maryland's 900,000 children." She noted that the 21st century "is defined by industries of the mind," and then said that the only way we can prepare our children for such advanced brain work is to mortgage the state to an industry of the gutter.
The cynicism of the slots machine knows no bounds. When critics suggested that slots prey on poor blacks, who can least afford losses, Ehrlich scoffed: "We're talking about adults, regardless of color, making adult decisions." He compared the choice to gamble to decisions about "candy or fast food."
The governor proudly touted his decision to budget $500,000 to handle gambling addiction. Later, when Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's) wondered how Ehrlich came up with the $500,000 figure, the governor's liaison to the legislature, Ken Masters, replied, in the most honest statement of the day, that: "It seemed like a substantial number. I'm not sure there was any particular analysis."
That's how this whole slots hysteria has been handled, of course. Chuck Brown said it best: We want the money, money, money.
I listened as horse trainers and breeders and riders and farmers told heartwarming stories of their romance with the animals, stories of faded glory and good old times.
If legislators were literary critics, they'd be well advised to bail out the horse industry with lots of slots. But they're not. Horse racing is a lovely, poetic sport; I spent many sweet afternoons watching the horses and flamingos at Hialeah. But horse racing is another generation's game. The empty grandstands at any Maryland track prove that.
The most powerful voices at the hearing were silent men in $1,000 suits, the track owners, the big boys who stand to multiply their millions on the backs of Maryland's poor. These guys need not speak in public; they've got anyone and everyone's ears backstage.
I asked Joe DeFrancis, owner of Laurel and Pimlico, what he made of the notion that racing is past its prime. "Racing was doing just fine in Maryland until Delaware and West Virginia started slots," he said. "Our best years ever were '94 and '95, the two years before Delaware started slots."
Yes, slots bring out more people. But let's not kid ourselves about why they're there; visit any Delaware racino and you'll find big crowds at the one-armed bandits and hardly anybody at the track, which is virtually hidden behind the Vegas-style slots casino. There is no natural connection between horses and slots; if it's slots Maryland wants, they might as well put them in supermarkets or shopping malls.
As for horse racing, some good things in life just go away. I liked Fudge Town cookies and Larimer's market and Top 40 radio and the Biograph theater, and they're all gone. That's life. It'd be sad to see the tracks go. But it's not like there aren't alternatives for the horse industry. The steaks really aren't that bad. I recommend a generous splash of A.1. sauce.
Join me at noon today
for "Potomac Confidential" at