Barn door is about to shut on state racing

March 09, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

HORSE RACING'S sad plight in Maryland gets sadder by the week. Indifference and politically motivated resistance from the Glendening administration; confusion and the lack of a consensus rescue plan on the part of legislators, and the loss of fans and top-flight local thoroughbred trainers to slots-rich Delaware Park combine to make a bleak situation downright ominous.

Without some kind of government help this year, Maryland racing's free fall will surely accelerate. This places in grave jeopardy a $1 billion state industry that does far more to encourage and preserve grassy fields and farms than the governor's much-hyped ''smart growth'' land-use bill.

Contemplate the impact of a ''do-nothing'' policy such as the one Gov. Parris N. Glendening apparently favors. The number of live-racing days at Laurel and Pimlico will shrink. More horsemen will opt for Delaware's lucrative races. Purses will decline, along with cash to keep facilities in shape. Fan support will drop even further. Maryland's slide into third-class status in the racing world will leave Delaware Park as the top Mid-Atlantic track.

It will be a slow, lingering death, culminating in the eventual sale of the Preakness, most likely to the new Colonial Downs race track near Richmond, Virginia.

Disappearance of first-class racing in Maryland will force many horsemen to consider selling their farms or moving to another state. As the industry contracts, it will mean fewer jobs at the tracks and at companies that depend on horse racing.

The downfall of an industry of this size ordinarily would send a governor and legislature into a panic. Not this time. One reason is that Mr. Glendening doesn't seem to have any affinity for horse racing -- other than getting his mug on national TV when presenting the Woodlawn Vase to the Preakness winner in May.

The Guv was "shocked"

He was happy to collect campaign contributions from the industry -- until track owner Joe De Francis got caught exceeding the legal donation limit. At that point, Mr. Glendening professed himself ''shocked'' and lost all interest in helping racing.

He happily denounces attempts to bring slot machines to Maryland tracks, since his anti-gambling stance is a major plank in his re-election bid.

He also seems content to lay much of the blame for racing's decline in Maryland on Mr. De Francis, who is a convenient fall guy. The governor and a number of legislators proclaim that they don't want to support a bailout plan that would enrich the track owner.

That is pure sophistry. There's no way to separate the track owner from the plight of the racing industry. Without successful race tracks in Maryland, the rest of the racing industry suffers mightily.

There are plenty of ways the state could help uplift the tracks (and thus local thoroughbred concerns) -- without slot machines or casinos. Racing is by far the most regulated sport in Maryland. Lessening some of the needless state control over track operations is overdue.

It also makes sense for the state to support purses awarded to horses at local tracks: It helps draw better horses, better crowds and more wagering -- all keys to making racing competitive with other local sports.

And there is no reason some money from another gambling enterprise, the state's lottery, can't be earmarked to underwrite major bond improvements at Laurel and Pimlico. It would cost a fraction of what the state is paying to build gleaming edifices for the Orioles, Ravens and Redskins.

But the governor would just as soon see the racing question disappear until after next year's election. And no one in the legislature has yet come up with a comprehensive plan that commands broad support. So as Delaware Park outspends Laurel in its purses this month, as the state's best trainers set up shop in Delaware for the first time, the local tracks will continue to suffer.

By the time the governor and lawmakers finally decide to confront this dilemma head-on, the horsemen may have already left the barn -- and taken the heart of this $1 billion industry with them.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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