Marylanders have a longshot chance of getting in on the most exciting and excruciating of all parimutuel sports.
The state's House of Delegates passed this week a bill legalizing wagering on jai alai. Although the measure encountered little opposition in the House, it is expected to meet stiffer resistance in the Senate. And if it should survive, it may be vetoed by Gov. Harry Hughes.
The idea of opening a jai-alai fronton in Baltimore is the brainchild of A. Robert Zeff, a Detroit attorney who fell n love with the game as a teen-ager. "I saw it for the first time in Florda when I was 15," he said. I thought it was a magnificent sport."
It was that initial exposure that prompted Zeff to invest in a fronton in Bridgeport, Conn., when that state became the first in the Northeast to legalize the game.
"It's amazing how it caught on," Zeff said. "Bridgeport is the most successful operation in the world. In a 25-week season, we'll handle over $85 million."
Encouraged by this success, Zeff began to cast his sights on Baltimore, and Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore City) introduced the bill that would pave the way for Zeff's fronton. But it will not have a favorable reception if it reaches the governor's desk.
Asked about jai alai at a press conference, Hughes said, "I don't know much about it except that I understand it's a pretty fast game. My feeling is that we have enough gambling in Maryland. We have a state lottery, which brings a huge amount of money to the state, a large portion of which is coming from people who cannot afford it. We have parimutuel betting in race tracks. I think we do not need any more gambling mechanisms in the state of Maryland."
Jai alai may drain people's money as surely as the state lottery, but at least it does so in an entertaining fashion. The jai alai ball flies off the walls of the court at speeds of up to 150 miles an hour, demanding incredible feats of acrobatics from the players.
The action is fast-paced and a full game lasts 10 minutes or more, forcing bettors to die a thousand deaths before their fate is determined. A man can get as much excitement for a $2 bet on jai alai as he can with a $100 bet on a harness race.
This is a good thing, because jai alai has the drawback of being unhandicappable. Betting serious money on it is sheer lunacy. The game appeals mostly to numbers players,
Although serious racetrack handicappers would probably disdain jai alai, they have a motive for hoping that the game is legalized in Maryland.
One reason the state's tracks, notably Bowie, bear resemblance to the Black Hole of Calcutta, is that they offer the only game in town. Without competition for the parimutuel dollar, they do not have to entice customers away from anything else.
This situation is a sharp contrast with that in Miami, where the gambling industry is so large and diversified. Here the jai alai frontons and even the dog tracks are so palatial that a thoroughbred track could not survive by offering its patrons facilities like at Bowie.