Tracks offer best odds for casinos

October 14, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Casino gambling isn't just coming.

It's already here.

In Delaware, 1,000 slot machines are slated for Delaware Park, 500 for Dover Downs and 500 for Harrington Raceway.

"It's going to have a definite impact on us," said Joe De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel.

Indeed, casino gambling is the runaway train of the gaming industry. If you don't get on board, you don't simply get left behind, you get run over.

Moral opposition to casinos doesn't wash in a state that already offers racing, lotteries and Keno. Economic opposition doesn't wash at a time when jobs and revenue could be lost to other states.

Deal with it, Maryland.

If casinos are the future, they don't belong at the Inner Harbor, the Washington suburbs or Western Maryland, as a panel of prominent Maryland business leaders suggested this week.

They belong at the tracks.

Put all the sinners under one roof, in self-contained gambling emporiums. Maybe then the state could save Maryland racing, not to mention the Inner Harbor.

Harrah's at the Harbor. Has there ever been a worse idea?

Leave it to the five former Maryland Chamber of Commerce chairmen who dismissed the $1.2 billion racing business as a "dying industry" in their report to the chamber.

Perhaps they should visit Laurel Park for today's Maryland Million -- if the casino lobbyists will let them up for air.

"Declining" is a more accurate description of the industry. "Changing" is the word racetrack people prefer. But "dying" certainly would fit if you put the casinos where the panel suggested.

"I can think of nothing that would be more destructive to the horse-racing industry than that," said Alex Waldrop, senior vice-president and general counsel at Churchill Downs.

It's no secret that casinos kill tracks. Life keeps getting faster, attention spans keep getting shorter. The computer generation would rather hit the slots than wait 30 minutes for the next race.

Racing executives with vision recognize that you can't beat 'em, so join 'em. Churchill Downs president Thomas Meeker once said that if riverboat gambling came to Kentucky, he would be "Captain Meeker."

And Kentucky is racing's biggest stronghold.

Elsewhere?

Cigar, the game's biggest star, probably is the best thoroughbred since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Yet the average sports fan has no idea who he is.

Last Saturday, Cigar met Thunder Gulch at Belmont Park on a card that featured six major races, a card that many believe was stronger than the one the Breeders' Cup will offer.

The attendance was 15,457.

Granted, the Pope was at Aqueduct. But how much crossover is there between those two crowds?

De Francis vows the Maryland Million will do better, and says the state's thoroughbred industry is undergoing a "tremendous renaissance," judged by "any measure, any statistics."

That simply is not true.

For one thing, attendance declined to 1.9 million in 1994, down 12 percent from the previous year and 34 percent from a high of 2.9 million in 1990.

The opening of off-track betting facilities around the state was one reason for last year's drop, but it can't account for the loss of 1 million fans over five years.

Wagering? It's up, but only because of the quick fix provided by simulcasting.

At Laurel this afternoon, fans can bet races at seven other tracks. Meanwhile, the Maryland Million will be shown at dozens of sites in the United States, as well as Mexico, Jamaica, Canada and Trinidad.

De Francis expects further gains once Florida and California start receiving simulcasts, but even he concedes that the market ultimately is limited.

Then what?

Simulcasting reduces the live handle; it was down 22.8 percent at the most recent Pimlico meet. And if this is a renaissance, De Francis seems awfully anxious to drop live dates.

Yet, when five former Chamber of Commerce presidents say, "the state has no obligation to save a dying industry," De Francis is correct to be outraged.

An industry with 22,000 employees is worth saving, for reasons that go beyond business. If Maryland loses its horse farms, it would lose part of its heritage, and much of its beauty.

Josh Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, opposes casino gambling on the purest level. "I want my kids to have green space to look at," he said.

Pons, the manager of the family-owned Country Life Farms in Harford County, doesn't believe the arrival of casinos is inevitable.

The way he sees it, if people had taken that approach to the development of Manhattan Island, there never would have been a Central Park.

"Maryland could be the Central Park of the mid-Atlantic," Pons said.

It's a romantic thought. But Pons sees his end of the industry -- the breeding end that so often is ignored -- making a comeback.

The average price of a yearling rose 62 percent at the Oct. 2 auction in Timonium, and the highest-priced colt sold for $210,000, nearly three times the previous record.

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