OTB: Fraught with Peril

February 15, 1992

Maryland's horse breeding and racing industry makes a strong case for off-track betting. The industry, worth $1 billion annually to the Maryland economy, has been staggered by a steep recession that has endangered many breeding farms. Unless something is done, racing officials fear for the future of their industry.

But is off-track betting the answer, as a coalition of racing officials contends? Or does OTB offer the unappetizing prospect of expanded gambling that could lure unsavory figures to the state?

Other states that have adopted off-track betting have shown big jumps in race-track profits, which translates into more prize money for horse-breeders. The larger purses stimulate interest in raising and racing horses. This, in turn, attracts more spectator interest and more wagering.

Horse farms and the racing industry have been a significant segment of the Maryland economy for two centuries. Pimlico's Preakness Stakes focuses the nation's sporting attention on Baltimore each spring. The livelihood of 20,000 Marylanders is dependent upon a healthy racing industry.

Yet the OTB bill being pushed by Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller and the Schaefer administration is fraught with peril. It could unwittingly open the door to underworld elements and to broader forms of gambling. The bill vests total control in the Maryland Racing Commission, a pro-industry panel with a staff of just five employees. No criminal background checks are required for applicants, nor does the bill specify any criteria for owning an OTB establishment.

How many sites would there be? As many as the commission -- and the race-track operators -- want. Inner harbor sites would be possible if Pimlico's owners approved. OTB locales along the Virginia and Pennsylvania borders could pop up. But with a staff of five, how would the commission police so many gambling emporiums?

If off-track betting is to proceed, the state must set strict parameters. The state's five tracks at Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft, Delmarva and Timonium should be the main sites for simulcast wagering on both trotting and thoroughbred racing. Only a specific number of additional locations should be allowed, and they should be restricted to sites with equine connections, such as Fair Hill in Cecil County and county fairgrounds.

The State Police and the attorney general's office ought to have a role in approving applicants and overseeing the operation of these facilities. And under no circumstances should any other form of gambling be permitted.

An OTB bill cannot be open-ended. It must be narrow in scope. State legislators will have amend the existing bill heavily to make it palatable. They may also want to increase the state's taxes on the betting dollar as a quid pro quo with the racing industry. Giving race tracks and horse farms the helping hand of OTB would be a good move in Annapolis -- if it is tightly controlled.

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