Maryland's harness-racing owners and trainers, through their Cloverleaf association, have taken the bait: They decided this week to form a partnership with a major casino-gambling company as a way to rescue their two floundering tracks. The harness horsemen may discover that they are only pawns in a much bigger struggle to legalize casinos throughout the state.
Bally Entertainment Corp., with giant casinos in Nevada and Atlantic City and riverboat gambling along the Mississippi, now has a tentative agreement to manage Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs, though the company has never run a race track before. What really counts for Bally is that in exchange for a $4 million loan to help Cloverleaf buy Rosecroft and Delmarva, the state harness horse-racing association will lobby hard to legalize casino gaming at the two tracks.
If that happens, Bally gets 50 percent ownership -- and opens the way for full-fledged casino gambling in Maryland.
It's a wonderful gamble for Bally. While Gov. Parris Glendening dawdles in naming members to a casino-gambling commission, the Illinois gaming corporation has driven a deep wedge into the state's horse-racing industry -- the only major group that has been vigorously fighting the legalization drive.
Faced with harness horsemen begging for casinos to save their dying tracks, state legislators may not put up much of a fight next year to fend off gaming. And once race tracks are granted permission to put in casinos, legislators championing riverboat gambling will be next in line, followed by all those fast-talking, high-paid lobbyists hired to get land-based casinos in the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis, in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
The lure of easy money seems to have worked its magic.
It's time for state leaders to wake up to the threat. Full-scale casino operations in Maryland would dramatically alter our way of life. It could bring organized crime into this state in a big way. It could create far more problems and expenses than the Pied Piper promises of new jobs and new tax revenue galore.
And yet there is no effort from lawmakers, the governor or business leaders to block this invasion by casino interests. The situation is changing rapidly. We need to hear from Governor Glendening and top lawmakers -- before it is too late.