Slots are bad for racing Delaware tracks: Gambling competition means sharp decline in horse bets.

August 04, 1996

GOV. PARRIS GLENDENING will have a tough time persuading people that slot machines in Delaware are devastating Maryland race tracks. The facts don't support that conclusion.

Indeed, Delaware slot machines haven't yet harmed Maryland thoroughbred tracks. The biggest problem, ironically, has been the damage done to horse-wagering at the Delaware tracks by the adjoining slots parlors.

At Delaware Park, wagering is down close to 30 percent, even though the slots parlor is jammed, with $870 million played in just six months. This has allowed track management to boost purses above levels at Maryland tracks. But there has not been any mass exodus of trainers and horses to Delaware.

Look at Maryland's recent race meets. Laurel just saw a 5.5 percent increase in its wagering. True, in-state wagers on Laurel races dropped 7.3 percent, but that's a result of the popularity of simulcast races (up 13 percent) -- not slots in Delaware. At Pimlico's spring meeting, overall betting dropped a modest 1 percent, though simulcast betting soared. Slots competition wasn't a factor.

Harness tracks are having trouble, though, especially Ocean Downs, which is in direct geographic competition with nearby Dover Downs. Attendance is off 30 percent and wagering is off 40 percent. Rosecroft in southern Prince George's County has also been hurt. Yet harness racing has been in dire straits for years. There's no guarantee even an infusion of slots money can turn the situation around.

Thoroughbred officials worry about the long-term impact of slots on their tracks. Delaware Park now has the money to finance new barns and Dover Downs can install sky boxes. The Maryland tracks, meanwhile, limp along.

But why turn to slots? What about other avenues no one has explored? The state could earmark lottery proceeds (as it does at Camden Yards) for renovating race tracks and boosting purses. State bonds could be used in a long-term plan to upgrade Maryland racing. Local governments could float bonds to improve parking and security. Track operators could bring in well-healed partners with capital.

Turning to slots won't save racing. It is just as likely that 10 years from now, the Delaware slots dominance will consume live racing there. If Maryland officials truly care about supporting this $1 billion local industry, they should investigate other innovative ways to increase racing's popularity. Slots are not the answer.

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