THE ANNOUNCEMENT by the Canadian owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course that it will cut the number of racing days nearly in half for the upcoming season is the latest symptom of the long decline of Maryland's shrinking, beleaguered thoroughbred horse racing industry. Magna Entertainment Corp. said its decision would actually buttress horse racing's future in the state by cutting costs, thereby enabling it to raise prize money and attract better horses and more bettors to the tracks. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), replaying a tired tune, portrayed the announcement as an economic emergency for the state and further evidence, to him, of Maryland's dire need to install thousands of slot machine gambling terminals at tracks to rescue the racing industry.

Mr. Ehrlich has failed in three consecutive years to coax the Maryland General Assembly into enacting legislation that would fulfill his vision of large-scale slot machine gambling at tracks. Sensibly, many lawmakers have balked at turning the Free State into a gambling mecca and suffering the sleaze and social blight that would follow. By turns, his administration has presented slots as a means to bail out struggling tracks; as a panacea for covering higher schools spending; and as a way to close an anticipated state budget deficit that will begin to bite in another year or two.

Having struck out on slots, the governor might be wise to disentangle his web of rationales and try talking sense. If, as he suggests, the racing industry is on its last legs in Maryland, why not ask the legislature to subsidize the industry with funds found the old-fashioned way: by raising taxes or cutting other programs? Then lawmakers can make an independent decision, divorced from the passions inspired by slots, on whether horse racing is truly worth saving.