As hot air on slots thickens, 'muddy shoes' watch, worry

February 16, 1997|By John Eisenberg

Isn't it funny that people with clean shoes are the ones determining the future of horse racing in Maryland, and yet people with dirty shoes are the ones who really care about it?

Isn't it funny that politicians, lobbyists and lawyers are the ones with the power in the high-profile debate about slots that is all over the news these days, and yet grooms, railbirds and the other members of the racing nation are the people who feel the game stirring in their souls?

Isn't that funny?

OK, maybe not.

Maybe it isn't so funny that the people on the inside of this critical debate about racing's future in Maryland seem to care about the sport mostly as it relates to their own self-interests, as another item on their political, moral and social agendas.

Maybe it isn't so funny that the people who really care about the sport, the people who get up to work in the mud at sunrise, have no voice in the debate.

Where, in this midst of all this hot air, are the people who bleed racing?

Why, they're at the track, of course. Wearing muddy shoes.

"I just hope nothing bad happens," said Henry Price, a groom, as he stood in the paddock at Laurel Park the other day.

As an icy wind carried torn betting tickets across the apron, Price smoked a cigarette, slicked back his gray hair and waited for his horse to run.

"You hear a lot of rumors these days," he said. "I'd hate to see racing have any kind of trouble. I've been on the track since I was 14."

Racing is already having all kinds of trouble everywhere, of course, as it tries to find a place in a changing world in which gamblers want the faster, easier action available in lottery and casino games.

The sport actually is doing better here than in some places; Laurel and Pimlico have turned profitable again in the past few years, after a bad slump in the early '90s. Still, anyone with eyes can see that the tracks still need help as slots turn Delaware Park into a monster, with Charles Town close behind.

Anyone with eyes can see that the buildings need repair, that purses need to grow, that the whole endeavor needs a jolt of electricity.

We all know that the governor has taken his stand against slots in Maryland; we know because he recently filled a stage with religious leaders raging against the evils of gambling.

That was the church and state working together to throw a powerful punch to racing's jaw.

With a lot less fanfare, the governor has also pledged to form a blue-ribbon panel to look into the right way to help racing.

Blah, blah, blah.

Rome isn't quite burning, at least not yet, but the governor is fiddling.

"I think we're gonna need something," said Michael Tanzell, a longtime local trainer, standing on the apron at Laurel after the seventh race the other day. "I happen to agree with the governor that we shouldn't have slots at the track, but if everyone else has them, you're going to have problems if you don't."

Tanzell has been alive for 69 years, and has spent 59 of them in racing.

"I'm still training out of barn 12 at Pimlico," he said, smiling in the chilly air. "The horses have a way of getting their hooks into you. They get their hooks into you and they don't let go."

He once had a horse nominated for the Preakness, a horse named You Bum You.

Now, he watches the slots debate with the same nagging apprehension that many racetrackers are feeling.

"It's just such a great game," he said with a wisp of melancholy.

Not that the governor deserves all the blame for what's happening, or not happening. Track operator Joe De Francis hardly enhanced his appeal as a target for state funding when he got caught making illegal campaign contributions last year. It's hard to blame the state for pausing before it gives De Francis a break.

You have to love De Francis' position these days. He is desperate for bad news. He doesn't want to hear that Maryland is staving off the threat from Delaware, at least for now. Good news such as that hurts his chances of getting a helping hand. Get that outta here!

Not that he is working up a sweat helping himself.

As the governor said in a radio interview last week, the tracks need to help themselves, too.

And that's where we are. Pointing fingers. Laying blame. Making excuses. Posturing and pontificating.

Fiddling.

Meanwhile, the races go on, day after day, month after month, a series of splendid little dramas played out before sparse crowds of fans casting an eye on simulcast feeds from warmer climates. With slots and other competition closing in on all sides.

Something needs to be done.

The people who love the sport understand that.

Those with muddy shoes know.

But is anyone listening?

Are they the only ones who really care?

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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