With their money bet on Rehrmann, horse-racing interests may end up losers

May 17, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

THOSE hard-working horsemen and women in Maryland don't deserve the fate that politicians have bestowed on them.

Instead of celebrating thoroughbred racing in the Free State after yesterday's 123rd running of the famed Preakness Stakes -- Maryland's biggest annual promotional event -- folks in the racing business here can only bemoan their plight.

They have become political pawns in a cynical, manipulative battle between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his chief Democratic rival, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

Political vendetta

Ms. Rehrmann's strategist Larry S. Gibson has opted to fight this primary campaign on the worst possible terrain: legalizing slot machines at the racetracks. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is Mr. Gibson's most prominent success story, is backing Ms. Rehrmann mainly because the governor wouldn't support slots at Pimlico Race Course a few years back to generate revenue for the city schools.

That has turned Ms. Rehrmann into a one-dimensional candidate. Already Mr. Glendening is trying to etch that image in the public's mind. His campaign pitch will go something like this: a Rehrmann victory means slots -- and eventually casinos and big-time gamblers -- throughout Maryland.

For the governor, it's a picture-perfect issue. He's practically angelic, while Ms. Rehrmann, with Mr. Gibson lurking malevolently in the background, looks like a craven politician fronting for gambling interests.

That's not fair to Ms. Rehrmann, who has been a capable, honest county executive. But it's also not fair to the racing industry, which could emerge in November with its dream of slots at the track in tatters and no hope for further relief from the man it opposed in this election, Mr. Glendening.

Horse racing ought to get a better break. The last thing it needs is an enemy in the governor's mansion. But Mr. Gibson has polarized the situation, and that places racing folks in an awkward spot. Many of them, including Pimlico-Laurel owner Joseph De Francis, have lined up with the Rehrmann-Gibson team.

Maryland's tracks -- and the thousands whose livelihoods depend on racing's prosperity -- need help. They are getting killed by the success of Delaware racetracks' slot machine gambling. Two state aid packages are helping the Maryland tracks tread water, but much more needs to be done.

This year's aid package gives the tracks $10 million to boost purses. Compare that with the $400 million in slot-machine revenue at Delaware tracks last month. This will translate into hefty hikes in purses for horsemen and women. Sooner or later, Maryland's tracks will be left in the dust in the competition for quality horses -- and patrons.

But will Mr. Glendening race to the rescue of those who tried to defeat him? That's not his track record.

Even if Mr. Glendening were to lose in November to Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the outlook for racing supporters won't be positive. Ms. Sauerbrey, while sympathetic to horsemen and women, is opposed to "corporate welfare" -- government handouts to struggling enterprises.

She and her fellow fiscal conservatives believe in the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. If for-profit racetracks can't make it on their own, let them die.

As for slots at the tracks, Ms. Sauerbrey acknowledges mixed emotions. She wants to help the tracks but she morally opposes expanded gambling. With Mr. Glendening taking a righteous anti-gambling position, you can hardly expect the Republican Party's likely nominee to go out on a limb.

Cautious steps

Ms. Sauerbrey and her handlers have been careful to avoid those kinds of mistakes. They don't want to ruin what looks like a golden opportunity for Republicans to win the governorship.

So horsemen and women are left in the lurch. Their only hope may be for some of Mr. Glendening's advisers to persuade him to offer his own plan for rescuing Maryland racing short of legalizing slots at the tracks. That would make him look like a statesman. He could oppose gambling while doing what is right for a troubled state industry.

More likely, Mr. Glendening will simply lash out at the evil gambling elements opposing his re-election. And the racing industry will suffer. That's a sad epilogue for this year's Preakness at Pimlico. The track, and the dedicated workers in that industry, should be celebrating today. But how can they when the future for racing in Maryland looks so bleak?

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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