Hot to Trot for Casinos

August 08, 1994

Certain members of this state's racing community can't wait to turn Maryland race tracks into huge gambling casinos. Now they are making frantic predictions of doom and gloom unless this state permits video slot machines at the tracks. If they succeed, they will kill Maryland's racing industry.

The way the pro-casino folks see it, Maryland is going to be mortally wounded by the introduction of video slots at West Virginia and Delaware race tracks. Others warn of riverboat gambling in the District of Columbia. They fear that business at our OTB locations will tumble. Racing fans will desert Maryland for tracks in neighboring states with slots. Purses will be slashed.

We need our own casino gambling, they maintain -- a pre-emptive first strike.

What they are describing, though, isn't a horse-racing initiative, but a bid to throw open Maryland's doors to full-fledged legalized gambling via casinos at race tracks. As other states have learned, when this happens the track patrons focus exclusively on the video slot machines and ignore the racing. Race track owners might get rich off the casino proceeds, but the horses would be put out to pasture.

Doomsday is not yet upon us. Yes, West Virginia has authorized video lottery machines at three horse and dog tracks, but voters in Jefferson County have yet to approve slots for Charles Town Race Course, which is in perilous financial shape.

In Delaware, only one of its three tracks expects to install slots (500 per track). But owners are dubious of the benefits of these machines, since the state will take up to 30 percent of the net revenues.

As for riverboat gambling in D.C., that's a pipe dream that may never become reality. Opposition to gambling is strong among District church leaders and in Congress.

Promoters of horse racing in Maryland would be far better off concentrating on improving their own product. Casino gambling won't interest more patrons in horse racing. What will draw more people through the turnstiles and enhance the betting pools is higher quality races, more user-friendly surroundings and more innovative track promotional efforts.

It doesn't take a marketing genius to figure out what the tracks need to boost horse racing. The answer doesn't lie in converting their facilities into all-purpose gambling dens.

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