Racing industry needs hand, not cold shoulder, from state

August 23, 1996|By John Eisenberg

Gov. Parris N. Glendening waved a dismissive hand at the state's racing industry when he slammed the door on slots last week.

Offering a vague, halfhearted promise to work to keep racing "healthy," he all but said, "Good luck, and keep in touch."

Sorry, not good enough.

Maybe the racing industry isn't in the dire straits that Laurel and Pimlico owner Joe De Francis claimed last week, and De Francis certainly hasn't done all he could to help the tracks, but the state government still owes racing a lot more than a vague promise from the governor.

The state owes racing a helping hand.

A big one.

The state's lottery business has done irreparable harm to racing over the past decade, taking a huge bite out of the gambling pie.

Basically, the state has become racing's chief competitor for the gambling dollar, and not just a competitor so much as a powerful, overwhelming force.

And yet, incredibly, the state still regulates the racing industry.

That is a blatant conflict of interest, not unlike putting Wal-Mart in charge of running the dime store down the street.

Only, in this case, the dime store is the racing industry, indigenous to the state, employing thousands and trickling down to dozens of breeding farms and small businesses.

Not to suggest that the state has tried to put racing out of business. It hasn't.

In fact, many legislators believe they have bent over backward to help racing. Senate President Mike Miller spoke last week of "the major concessions the state has very generously given" De Francis over the past few years.

"I don't know what more we can do," Miller said.

Try getting a clue.

The state has given De Francis nothing extraordinary, only what other major tracks around the country are getting, or trying to get.

Off-track betting, simulcasting, Sunday racing and intertrack wagering are basic tools of the racing trade in the '90s, like standard features on a car.

Those weren't generous concessions; those were wishes that merely enabled De Francis to keep up with everyone else in the racing industry.

A generous concession was the state's decision in 1986 to take a far smaller cut of the racing handle. But De Francis' father, Frank, wheedled that one out of the legislature.

Joe De Francis has gotten no special favors, no generous helping hand.

And he has needed it far more than his father.

It's popular now to romanticize about his father's tenure as the good 'ol days, but Frank left Joe $40 million in debt when he died.

If those were the good 'ol days, they were bought with borrowed money.

Joe De Francis has been hamstrung by that debt from the moment he took over.

Meanwhile, the state's lottery business has just gotten bigger and bigger, giving racing a smaller and smaller share of the gambling market.

The state owes racing a helping hand.

Granted, no one wants to help someone who doesn't appear to be helping himself, which is De Francis.

He screamed for help after Glendening shot down slots last week, but there are ways he could help himself.

He could incorporate the Maryland Jockey Club, sell stock and raise millions. Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and Penn National have helped renew themselves that way.

Of course, you must have your finances in order when you have stockholders to please. What about it, Joe?

He also could lobby for telephone betting, enabling fans to bet at home, and also try twilight racing in the summer, hipper marketing campaigns and, most importantly, fixing up the tracks to make them more pleasurable places to go.

But with his industry regulated by the state, he obviously needs help to get anywhere.

And help doesn't necessarily mean just a barrel of taxpayer money.

De Francis would benefit from cutting Pimlico to 30 live racing days a year -- a spring meeting encompassing the Preakness -- and otherwise focusing on Laurel. It makes economic sense, with Laurel drawing from two cities and Pimlico from one.

Besides, Pimlico is a rundown disaster, a lost cause. I give up on that one. Attempting to fix up Pimlico would amount to throwing good money after bad.

Sad to say, but the grand, old track would be worth something only if it burned down.

The state could help De Francis by letting him do what he wanted with Pimlico's racing dates.

And by giving him telephone betting.

And maybe by helping him fix up the tracks.

Yes, it's debatable whether De Francis is the right man to try to regenerate Maryland racing.

And, yes, probably the best thing to happen would be for him to sell.

But the issue isn't De Francis; the issue is the industry. It isn't dying, not when it is announcing a profit, but it isn't growing, either.

And it isn't going to grow.

The governor is so worried he did everything but yawn last week.

His moralistic stand against slots was beautiful coming from a guy trumpeting a new football stadium being built with lottery money.

It was a slap in the face of racing, a sport that pays thousands of salaries and needs a lot of help.

What about it, governor?

We know what you aren't going to do, but what are you going to do?

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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