Racing needs straight talk about slots

August 17, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Ten months ago, Joe De Francis said the state's thoroughbred industry was undergoing a "tremendous renaissance" judged by "any measure, any standard."

Yesterday, he compared his plight to Art Modell's in Cleveland, and said he had no plan for the future without slot machines at his racetracks.

Which is it, Joe?

It's true Pimlico and Laurel are coming off a year of record profits. It's also true that the slots in Delaware pose a genuine threat to Maryland racing.

The question is how large.

No one -- not De Francis, not Gov. Parris N. Glendening, not any handicapper -- has the answer.

De Francis said yesterday that he wants the same amount of "deference and appreciation" the state gave the Orioles and Ravens in stadium funding.

Please.

Racing isn't popular enough to justify such an investment, and De Francis isn't exactly dealing from a position of strength, having been found guilty of using relatives to funnel illegal campaign contributions to the governor.

Would Glendening risk his political career to help someone who caused him embarrassment? Would he even trust De Francis with such an undertaking when many believe that Pimlico and Laurel are mismanaged?

These were valid questions even before the governor threw his little fit on Monday, saying he was "closing the door" on casino gambling in Maryland "once and for all."

Out-of-state operators probably envy De Francis. He gets a reduced state tax rate. Off-track betting and simulcasting. The Preakness and Maryland Million. A thoroughbred racing monopoly in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Still, De Francis is only part of this equation -- "maybe a third of the whole pie," said Richard J. Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

The horsemen and breeders constitute the other two-thirds, and their importance to the state's economy should not be dismissed by a governor "locking the door and throwing away the key" for his own political reasons.

Glendening said he would work with the industry to keep it "healthy," but offered no details. Does he have any idea of the positive impact slots could make on Maryland racing? Does he even care?

The evidence is rather intriguing -- the wagering on Delaware slots in six months was twice as much as the wagering on Maryland thoroughbred racing last year, its most successful in history.

Ten percent of the slot revenue goes back into purses, leading to higher-quality racing. That probably would lead to increased wagering in a state with a racing tradition as strong as Maryland's, even though it hasn't in Delaware.

Maryland not only would ensure that its horses stayed in-state with a higher purse structure, but it also would attract horses from states like New York and Pennsylvania, horses that are shipping to Delaware now.

Another thing:

If other nearby states adopted casino gambling, we'd be looking Francis at a potential crisis -- a pointless sacrifice for a state that claims it would occupy the high ground by offering racing, lotteries and Keno, but not casino gambling.

Heck, some in racing believe that Delaware isn't even unleashing its full potential, holding down purse money and spending little on promotion for fear of awakening the sleeping giant in Maryland.

"If Delaware wanted to, they could bury any track in the region right now," said Josh Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"They're 6-foot-9 playing basketball against a 6-footer, and they're just taking long, outside shots, not really moving in and muscling us away."

Delaware Park president Bill Rickman said he cannot legally hold back purse money, adding, "we're not all of a sudden going to pass Maryland in a swoop."

Delaware Park is paying about $152,000 a day in purses. Rickman said that no further increases are planned this year, and that the daily amount will be about the same next year.

Others aren't so sure.

"It has to be over $200,000 a day next year," said Steve Kallens, the former Delaware Park marketing director who recently left for a similar position at Philadelphia Park. "He [De Francis] has got a fear next year."

Rickman, a native of Maryland, probably has no interest in killing Maryland racing, but the point is, he might have the power to do so.

Then again, he might not.

If Maryland racing is in such trouble, then why did Orioles owner lTC Peter Angelos express interest two years ago in buying Pimlico and Laurel?

And why did R. D. Hubbard, a California-based operator, also try to purchase the tracks?

De Francis described slot machines as racing's version of club seats and luxury boxes, but it's not as if his position is as helpless as, say, the Milwaukee Brewers'.

This issue is too important for the governor to brush off, and for De Francis' latest doomsday scenario to be accepted as gospel.

Enough self-serving propaganda.

Let's hear an objective analysis.

Pub Date: 8/17/96

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