The Maryland legislature appears ready to grant the state's thorough-bred owners and trainers the bigger purses they need in order to sustain the business of horse racing. Unfortunately, the lawmakers are going about it the wrong way. They will have the bettors pay for the increase, not the state.
This year, the racing industry approached the legislature with an awkward omnibus bill that would have had the state and the bettors share in providing relief for purses and to the tracks. The state was to surrender 2.34 percent of its current 5 percent share of the takeout on parimutuel wagering. One percent was to go for purses, 1 percent to the tracks, and .34 percent to the breeders' fund.
A nearly equal amount was to be generated by a proposed increase it the takeout. The tax on the exactas and daily double was to raised from 16 percent to 19 percent, and on the triple from 16 percent to 25 percent. The 15 percent on win-place-show was not to be affected. Of this overall 2 percent increase in the take-out, 1 percent was to go for purses and 1 percent to the tracks.
A "splinter group" of horsemen got into the Annapolis act. This group perceived - quite correctly - the industry bill to be a pork-barrel proposition that would have placated all the racing interests, but one that obviously was not going to be passed intact because it would have meant windfall profits for the tract owners.
Rather than wait for the legislature to start amending that bill into unacceptable shape, the splinter group came up with its own measure that the Senate has passed and, from judging from all indications, the House also is going to approve.
The splinter bill does not call for the state to take a cut in its 5 percent takeout. It requires the take on exactas and the daily double to be increased from 16 percent to 19 percent and on the triple from 16 percent to 23 percent. During the next two years, the triple pact would go up to 25 percent, 1 percent at a time.
These increases would yield more than $7 million a year for purses. In day-to-day terms, it means the Maryland majors - Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie - would be able to offer horsemen approzimately $24,000 more daily in purses, from the present $52,000 to $76,000.
This would make Maryland competitive with tracks in neighboring states. Keystone, near Philadelphia, averages $69,000, Delaware Park $52,000, Monmouth Park (New Jersey) $75,000 and the New York tracks $110,000 to $120,000.
The higher purse distribution is justified. Maryland tracks still present a pretty good show, despite the strong competition from nearby states. But if Maryland purses are not increased, there is going to be a drop in the quality of horseflesh running around its mile ovals.
It is equally true that Maryland tracks do not deserve direct financial help from the state. Pimlico appears to be doing rather nicely under the current business arrangement. If Laurel and Bowie are suffering, it is largely because they lacked progressive management for too many years.
The splinter bill working its way through the Maryland legislature is admirable in that it addresses itself directly to the purse problem without offering every element in the sport a handout. The bill also is realistic. The splinter group felt that the state was not about to give up one penny of the $16.4 million it realizes from taxing the betting at thoroughbred tracks.
However, from the horsemen's standpoint, if the state was not going to help, the only recourse was to soak the poor horseplayer some more. And that is what rankles, or in terms of the splinter bill, festers.
This measure will not cure Maryland racing's economic problems. It is, in effect, a stopgap measure designed to buy time for the horsemen at the horseplayer's expense. The higher takeout should decrease the total mutuel handle. Bettors looking for pie in the sky in the triple will go hungary faster. And two years from now as the cost of racing horses continues too increase, the horsemen will be back in Annapolis begging for another 2 percent.
But who cares?
Who cares, expecially when we are talking about that portion of the public that gambles, even if the gambling on horses is legal?
The answer is no one cares. Not the horsemen, not really. Not the track managements. And certainly not the members of the state legislature. These groups work together to always take the easy way out of racing's problems by agreeing to tax the fans a little more.
Oh, I am sure the splinter horsemen care about the bettors a little. Horsemen bet, too. But they chose not to fight the difficult fight in Annapolis in 1978 by stating unequivocally the case for the state surrendering 2 percent to 2.23 percent. Instead, the splinter group agreed to stick it to us.
But, for now, the Maryland bettor appears likely to have his pocket picked again by the legislature. The state will say it acted to help, the horsemen. The horsemen will say they are sorry, but it wwas the only way. And I will keep betting most of my money on sports (not racing) events with the friendly, neighborhood bookmaker who taxes me only when I lose and, overall, hits me for less then 5 percent on the dollar.
It may not be legal, but it's beautiful, compared with how the racing industry treats its fan at the track.