Controversy alters odds for slots

July 19, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

The owner of Laurel and Pimlico is defending himself in court on a charge of illegal campaign contributions.

The chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission has resigned under pressure for failing to report a loan.

Predicting political winds is impossible, but controversy at the top of the Maryland racing industry won't help the chances of getting slot machines installed at Laurel and Pimlico anytime soon.

A lot of people are cheering that reality, for many and varied reasons.

L They're cheering a horribly hurtful blow to Maryland racing.

Without slots, Maryland racing will just continue to spin in a cycle of mediocrity.

With slots, well, consider the stunning story of Delaware Park, a 69-year-old track in Stanton, Del.

A decade ago, it was a minor-league track so beleaguered that it temporarily closed down.

Today, six months after slot machines were installed, it is the only track in the country with purses going through the roof.

It has yet to attract a major-league clientele from Maryland, New Jersey and other nearby circuits, but just wait. Racing's first commandment is that horses follow money, and the money is coming to Delaware Park.

L More than anyone dreamed of, thanks to the arrival of slots.

Gamblers have poured some $821 million into the machines in six months.

More in each month than the month that preceded it.

Business is reeeeal good.

Delaware Park gets 4 percent of the intake, of which one-tenth goes to purses.

That's a $3.3 million windfall, for those scoring at home.

The result has been a dramatic rise in purses, which in theory lures a higher caliber of horse and makes for more interesting gambling. On many days now, horses in Delaware are running for more money than horses in Maryland.

That was an unthinkable concept before now, and now it's a reality.

Two days ago, on an average Wednesday at the races, purses at Laurel Park were $135,600 and purses at Delaware Park were $150,000.

Sunday, the Delaware Park Handicap was run for $300,000 -- twice as much as a year ago.

Nowhere else in the country is a track's economic star rising so rapidly.

It's not rising at all in many places.

The downside is that the races at Delaware Park are little more than an addendum to the new casino. The tail is wagging the dog, a concept racing purists abhor.

Slots in the grandstand are indeed an embarrassment to racing's grand, old-money image. But the sport just can't afford to worry about that anymore, unfortunately.

jTC At Delaware Park, the people who want slots are inside hammering away and the people who want racing are outside enjoying a vastly improved product. What's wrong with that?

It could happen in Maryland.

There is no reason the same thing couldn't happen here.

In fact, given Maryland's inherent superiority to Delaware as a breeding and racing state, the racing boom could be even louder.

But what are the chances of slot legislation making it through the General Assembly next year now that Joe De Francis has been hauled into court and the racing commission has been slimed by the forced resignation of former chairman Allan Levey?

Slots do have pockets of support in high places, but it's hard to blame lawmakers for doubting whether they should grant such a lucrative wish to an industry in such turmoil -- an industry that hasn't won many awards for excellence lately, anyway.

A shame.

The absence of slots means more of the same, old blah at Laurel and Pimlico instead of an influx of money and excitement, a bona fide renewal.

Not that racing can ever regain the stature it had in the '50s, when it was a front-page sport. Those days are over.

But it's still a sport with a strong and sizable constituency here, and it would benefit from slots.

Sure, the issue is about much more than just racing; social, economic and political agendas are involved, a sea of high-stakes conflict.

Delaware's slots were lost in a similar political labyrinth for 10 years. The state legislature passed three separate bills that were vetoed by governors. Finally, the right deals were made and slots became a reality.

Now, racing at Delaware Park is booming.

Meanwhile, the health of slot legislation here is endlessly measured and debated as the racing industry continues to spin in the same, old cycle.

But let there no longer be any debate about what would happen at Laurel and Pimlico if slots were installed.

Racing, one of Maryland's finest institutions, would benefit enormously.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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