Plenty of losers at racetrack

August 18, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

WHO'S THE biggest loser in the slots-schools-racing controversy?

Is it Gov. Parris Glendening, whose credibility was tattered by the time he pulled the plug on slot-machine legalization?

The governor looked like a flip-flopping, deny-everything, blame-the-other-guy politico. Suspicion of his intentions looms so large that some people still don't believe him when he says slots are dead.

What about Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who ended up calling the governor a liar, lost a deal to give city schools $200 million and saw a potential revenue gusher -- money from race-track slots -- evaporate?

Yes, Mr. Schmoke felt he had been betrayed. Yet he was the one who blabbed about the alleged agreement he made with the governor to support slots but to keep it quiet for a few months. He must have known the consequences of going public.

The mayor hurt his relations with the governor, got zero for city schools and is left pursuing a dubious education lawsuit against the state. His own credibility is being questioned, too, since this isn't the first time he has left a meeting with a dramatically different view of what happened.

But the biggest loser is Maryland racing. The tracks were used as pawns by the mayor, the governor and the gambling industry. Instead of seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the race tracks now stare into an abyss.

Harness tracks are in horrible shape; thoroughbred ovals aren't far behind. They can't compete against invigorated Delaware tracks, flush with millions from slot machines put in late last year. Those millions were used to raise purses above Maryland levels and start major renovations.

In a few years, Delaware will have all the good horses and the big crowds. Maryland may be down to one thoroughbred track and, perhaps, one harness track. Pimlico, a 130-year-old Baltimore institution of tremendous prestige, could be shuttered.

The economic impact would be pretty severe. There are thousands of people whose livelihoods are linked to local race tracks -- from stable workers and vendors to feed suppliers and breeders.

Track owners, deep in debt, can't afford to make improvements. They don't have much creative vision, either.

Instead, they put all their hopes on a long shot -- slot machines. This never had a chance because too many greedy people wanted to grab a piece of the action. What started out as a bid to put slots in three isolated, highly regulated settings quickly got out of hand. Everyone wanted slots parlors as a prelude to casinos.

Now the tracks are left without a game plan. And they have cried "Wolf!" so often that few legislators are rushing to their side.

Yet it probably will take a major infusion of state capital to turn Maryland racing around. The tracks likely will have to become partners with the state.

Stadium Authority

One scenario involves expanding the jurisdiction of the Maryland Stadium Authority. If the MSA's bonding authority is raised and it is permitted to dip into lottery funds from additional sports-related games of chance, there would be sufficient funds to pay for track modernization.

Legislators also could divert taxes from horse wagering to boost racing purses. That's the surest way to get better horses -- and more fan interest.

It will take more than that to turn around racing's prospects. Maryland needs a strategic plan to make Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft entertainment destinations. Live racing should be just one component in a total package.

Is there the will to rescue Maryland racing? Not yet. The governor talks vaguely about a "plan" but he'd just as soon put this hot one on the back burner. Legislators are loath to support a big bailout for an industry that doesn't know how to save itself. And the mayor seems ready to watch Pimlico close without offering a penny of city aid.

Still, the prospect of running the Preakness at Laurel in 1998 -- an election year for the governor and state lawmakers -- the sale of Bowie's training track acreage and the end of harness racing on Maryland's Eastern Shore might change some minds.

Politicians aren't good at anticipating problems. Racing's sharp decline has produced only yawns from elected leaders. It probably will take a full-fledged crisis to spur them to act. But it isn't likely to be the kind of aggressive, ambitious plan needed to put Maryland racing on the road to prosperity.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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