The aims of Gov. Harry Hughes' plan to revitalize Maryland racing are unassailable. Hughes would "consolidate" racing at two tracks to improve the sport's economic health, make it more competitive with other states and more pleasant for its fans.
But when the thetoric is stripped away, the essence of Hughes' plan is this: The citizens of Maryland and the horseplayers of this area should pay so that Laurel and Pimlico race tracks can earn more money. It is a public giveaway to private interests that has almost no precedent in American racing. g
Consolidation has long been proposed as a remedy for the ills of Maryland racing, for the state obviously cannot support an unlimited number of first-rate facilities. The process has in fact been going on for years. Timonium bought out the old Cumberland track. Hagerstown bought out Bel Air. Marlboro bought out Hagerstown. Bowie bought out Marlboro (as former Gov. Marvin Mandel so well remembers).
The logical next step would be for Pimlico and Laurel to buy Bowie, shut down that despicable eyesore forever, and take over its 112 racing dates. But Hughes proposes to save John Schapiro of Laurel and the Cohen family of Pimlico this expense, and make the purchase for them. The state of Maryland would spend $6 million to buy Bowie's dates. Not its facilities -- its racing dates.
This is a strange idea. States allot racing dates to the tracks they license. They can arbitrarily give or take away those dates. A track does not "own" its racing dates, and the proposal that Maryland's taxpayers should pay the Bowie management $6 million for them is hard to justify.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the effect of abolishing both Bowie and Timonium would greatly benefit Maryland racing. Timonium's ramshackle facilities and inadequate parking belie the cliche that racing at half-mile tracks is especially quaint and charming.Bowie is not only the most depressing race track in America but its management has consistently treated its customers with utter disregard and contempt.
If racing were consolidated at two tracks, Laurel and Pimlico would generate considerably more revenue. That money could enable the managements of those tracks to improve their facilities and upgrade the overall caliber of the sport in Maryland.
But having given these tracks a $6 million gift that will enable them to earn all this added revenue, the Hughes plan doesn't ask Laurel and Pimlico to spend this money for the well-being of its patrons. The customers are supposed to pay for that, in the form of a 1.6 percent increase in the "take" from win, place and show wagers.
This proposed increase in the mutuel take, which will remove separate millions of dollars a year from the state's racing fans, exposes the true nature of the Hughes plan. During the last year another beleaguered segment of the industry, the New York Racing Association, has set as its No. 1 priority a reduction in the mutuel take, believing that nothing could stimulate the health of the business more than putting money into the pockets of its customers.
It is preposterous to argue that a plan which further fleeces racing fans will contribute to the long-term health of the sport as a whole. Hughes' plan serves the interests of the owners of Laurel and Pimlico.