Racing and slots don't mix

June 20, 1994

Just when things are starting to look up for the state's racing industry, along comes a suggestion that could prove devastating. This month Pimlico Race Course finished its most successful spring meeting ever, and yet some racing officials are already talking about converting Maryland's race tracks to all-purpose gambling facilities complete with slot machines, electronic video poker, live poker games and other casino offerings.

Introducing Slots & Co. to the race tracks could eventually kill the racing game in Maryland. Horses would become a minor adjunct of the other gambling ventures, transforming tracks into giant emporiums for Atlantic City style wagering year-round, day and night.

The state of West Virginia has approved video lottery machines at three horse and dog tracks. Charles Town's owners are threatening to shut down that track unless voters in Jefferson County let them follow suit.

Meanwhile, in Delaware, horsemen have been trying for five years to bring slot machines to the state's three tracks. A bill permitting slots passed the House this year, but Gov. Thomas Carper has promised a veto. He believes "slot machine gambling is just a start and eventually the pressure will be brought to bear on the General Assembly for full-scale gambling. . . Slot machine gambling will not save horse racing in Delaware."

Governor Carper said that in other states where slot machines have been installed at horse tracks more patrons are attracted to gambling but fewer fans watch the races and bet. Ominously, these tracks also report more crime.

Is that what we want for Maryland's racing industry? Of course not. The best and safest way to restore horse racing to good health is to continue the upswing that led to big jumps in revenue at the last Laurel and Pimlico meets. Track owner Joe De Francis should build on this success. Bigger purses will mean a better caliber of thoroughbreds and more bettor interest. That in turn will stimulate the local breeding and training industry.

Reviving racing in Maryland won't be easy. Making Laurel and Pimlico user-friendly and exciting for more patrons is crucial. One-armed bandits aren't the answer. Casino gambling isn't the answer, either. That would only accelerate the decline of live racing at local tracks. Mr. De Francis has an exciting sport to market. That should be the sole focus of his -- and the state racing commission's -- endeavor.

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