In the long run, slot machines are a losing bet for race tracks

August 18, 1996|By John Steadman

What Maryland horse racing needs isn't slot machines, which would only further degrade its once noble presence, but a vibrant leadership that commands attention, creates excitement and reinvigorates interest in a sport that hasn't done much to help itself.

If it means that Joe DeFrancis and his family sell their interest in Pimlico, Laurel and the training facility at Bowie then perhaps that possibility needs to be addressed. The public and, no doubt, the legislators are weary of the on-going demands the industry -- meaning the ever pressing DeFrancis -- continues to place upon the state government.

DeFrancis keeps going to the General Assembly crying for help, almost as if it's a humane cause that needs emergency assistance. Could other troubled businesses do the same? Pimlico's problems need to be dealt with -- an old track that is declining and in urgent need of a face-lift or else something more drastic, taking it down and moving the Preakness to Laurel.

The purists will rebel at any such suggestion that mentions tampering with the past and all the lore and glory that exists at Pimlico. But the rich history isn't going to pay the bills. It's time for racing to move in another direction. It's not dead, it just needs attention.

An ideal man to take command of the sport in Maryland, if you want a recommendation, is Peter Angelos, who doesn't look for handouts and is quick to spend his own money when he sees a sporting proposition that interests him -- as witness paying $173 million for the Orioles and putting in a bid of $210 million for a pro football team.

Angelos owns thoroughbreds and enjoys the race track. It's only in the interest of Maryland racing that we make the suggestion. He's not a messiah and the thought of advancing Angelos' name isn't to be interpreted as a slam at DeFrancis, who is smart and has endeavored to do his best since taking over the track after the death of his father and the enforced separation of the capable Manfuso brothers, Bob and Tommy, from the operation.

Angelos' track record tells you that he could make it work. Racing in Maryland needs a different approach and maybe it's time for DeFrancis to realize there's not much else he hasn't asked for or implemented, such as permission to simulcast and the establishment of off-track betting parlors and Sunday race cards.

Every gambling gimmick known to modern man has been used to entice patrons to race tracks. When is it going to end? Now the alternative, if you want to agree with DeFrancis, is the addition of slot machines. Too bad. That type of thinking concedes that slot machines are more important than the breeding, training and racing of horses. It's a concept that is not in the best interest of the game.

Racing should be good enough to stand on its own four feet. That's where the focus should be. Maybe the days of private ownership of race tracks are passe. If not Angelos as an individual, then perhaps the State of Maryland should assume control from DeFrancis and operate it just as it does the airport, shipping terminals and the lottery.

And, of course, the baseball park, football stadium and convention center. All have become entities of the state. DeFrancis has a point when he says racing deserves the same assistance that the Orioles and Ravens have received, especially the football club which has been given a free ride for the next 30 years by the Maryland governor, Parris Glendening.

Let racing have the same privileges but slot machines are not a panacea, despite the income recorded at Delaware Park. Racing has been around much longer than baseball and football. It's a Maryland tradition, going back to the time of George Washington, and deserves to be preserved with some awareness of respect. Slot machines?

If playing facilities can be built for the two major professional teams in Baltimore then racing rates identical consideration. Maybe it could finance the building of a new Pimlico. That probably never occurred to Glendening when he made the deal to bring the Browns from Cleveland.

At the time, we said it was a precedent-making move that could have serious ramifications in the future, a fall-out of sorts that was going to have to be dealt with when other entrepreneurs show up to ask, "what about me?", which is what DeFrancis is doing now. You can't say yes to the Orioles and Ravens and then arbitrarily reject horse racing.

The problem of what to do with Maryland racing is in front of Glendening and it's not going to go away. Racing, once again, lines up with its hat in its hand, begging for assistance. If DeFrancis doesn't believe the business has a future then he should entertain bids to sell to other parties.

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