Keeping racing on track

October 19, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

HORSE RACING returned, briefly, to center stage on the state's sports calendar yesterday. It promises to remain a contentious and vexing issue on the calendar of state elected officials.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening would like any talk of horse racing to disappear until 1999. That's what his minions keep telling racing supporters: After the 1998 election, we'll take care of you.

This infuriates racing leaders. Mr. Glendening has been the biggest impediment to a permanent solution for racing's woes. He has taken slots-at-the-tracks off the table, but hasn't put forth any alternative approach of his own.

No gain

He doesn't see immediate political gain in sticking his neck out to help the race tracks. Not when the governor is focused like a laser on the 1998 election campaign.

But there is reason to worry about this $1 billion state industry. It is being seriously undermined by slots-rich race tracks in Delaware and now in Charles Town, W. Va. Without help from the state, Maryland's racing industry could be seriously harmed.

Bringing in slot machines at the race tracks would be fraught with peril. So far, greed has dominated discussions in Annapolis. Not only are some lobbyists and legislators pushing for slots at the tracks, but also in Cumberland, in Cecil County, in Cambridge and in downtown Baltimore. More sites would surely follow. The gambling door would be wide open for full-fledged casinos.

Yet there are plenty of avenues open to Mr. Glendening and state lawmakers short of embracing slot machines. Here are some things the governor could do:

Embark on a multi-year capital-improvement project to turn Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft into sparkling entertainment centers, with first-class facilities for both patrons and horsemen.

Pimlico has beautiful schematics for an enlarged grandstand and paddock, but doesn't have the money for such a massive undertaking. That's why Pimlico officials are pushing hard for slots.

The state could substitute its own gambling money for this purpose. Next year marks the final installment of lottery money to build the Ravens football stadium at Camden Yards. That $32 million in annual lottery (gambling) proceeds could be shifted to the race tracks to turn them into state-of-the-art facilities comparable to Camden Yards.

Use more lottery proceeds to boost purse awards, especially to Maryland-bred or Maryland-stabled horses. That would certainly stimulate the local breeding and training of thoroughbreds and standardbreds (harness racing horses).

Create more "big day" events at the three race tracks, underwritten jointly by the state and private corporations. We have the Preakness and the Maryland Million. Why can't the state put up funds for other major races that would draw top horses?

Turn the Department of Economic and Business Development into a marketer of Maryland racing. It ought to have a multi-million-dollar budget to draw people from the East to big racing days in Maryland. Why, for instance, doesn't DBED aggressively advertise and market Preakness Week? It is the crown jewel of our springtime. The economic return in tax dollars and in revenue for local businesses from such promotions could be considerable.

Give the state Department of Agriculture money to vigorously promote the equine industry on Maryland farms. This ought to be a key component of the governor's Smart Growth initiative: Horse farms in Central Maryland provide a bulwark against residential sprawl. They are essential to this region's quality of life.

City support

Mr. Glendening could also exert his power in other ways. He ought to press Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for two major commitments: Restore city financial support for Preakness Week events, and introduce an off-street parking loan for Pimlico (repaving, security stations and aesthetic fencing).

He ought to get a similar commitment from Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry to put up county funds to improve the ambience and security at Laurel and Rosecroft.

The governor could propose deregulating all aspects of horse racing not directly linked to gambling. Why should the state set the price for a race track program?

Finally, the governor could bring all elements of the squabbling racing community together to devise ways to attack other problems, such as the lack of high-quality off-track betting facilities and the continuing antipathy between thoroughbred and standardbred officials.

Turning Maryland into the top racing state in the East could be the end result. But not unless the governor has the courage to put his political misgivings aside so he can deal directly with problems affecting an industry that provides jobs for 17,000 Marylanders.

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

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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