Morality lectures on slots are out of place at Pimlico

May 19, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the tumultuous Pimlico infield Saturday, this young lady climbs atop some beefy guy's shoulders and hears the crowd chant, "Show us your (bleeps.)" Family atmosphere, the governor of Maryland earnestly declares into a radio microphone only yards away, oblivious to the world around him. The young lady reaches down to her halter top now and grandly hoists it away, baring her (bleeps) for all to see. Bleeps, that's a parenthetical euphemism which is used here because, as Parris N. Glendening might say, this is a family newspaper.

The crowd roars at the sight of the young lady's (bleeps.) The governor of Maryland, still speaking into a WJFK-radio microphone, waxes poetically about "the morally right thing to do." But he's talking about slot machines. In pursuit of re-election, he has repeatedly instructed us: Gambling is not healthy.

At Saturday's Preakness, a crowd of 91,000 people nevertheless gambled $5,587,479. They would have gambled about $2 million more, only the power went out at Pimlico, so people in the grandstand sat in the dark and sweltered and bumped into each other when they tried to move around. It seemed haunted in there. You want a metaphor for the racing industry in Maryland, you got it right there, buddy.

This is Pimlico's one hugely profitable day of the year - a day when throngs arrive to bet, and some to bare their (bleeps). But somebody blew it this year. Late Saturday afternoon, owner Joseph De Francis jostled his way through the increasingly irritable grandstand crowd, trying to keep his (and the crowd's) composure in check, trying to get the electricity turned back on, knowing he was losing a fortune each minute.

"Awful," he muttered. "Just awful."

Rumors swept through the crowd: A fire in the jockey's dressing room set off the power failure, some said; faulty transformer, some said, and a failed backup generator. Three days later, the cause is still unclear.

"I think Joe De Francis pulled the plug," said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, strolling through the Preakness crowd. He laughed heartily, to show he was kidding. Ecker's running for the Republican nomination for governor, so he's paying attention to subtleties. De Francis, sitting on a decaying 128-year-old facility, says he can't continue doing business without slots. He says Pimlico's a wreck, redeemable only with large infusions of cash. Is there better evidence of a whole industry falling down than its centerpiece powerless with a national TV audience tuning in?

"Just joking," Ecker said now. He walked through Pimlico's corporate tent area, which was separated from the infield by some picket fencing and platoons of security people. In the corporate section, Glendening, who had staunchly declared Pimlico a "nonpolitical" area the previous week, was now talking into this WJFK microphone and displaying his grand sense of "nonpolitical" self-promotion.

"Do you ever feel lonely" taking the anti-slot position? the governor was asked on the air.

"If you're right, you stick with your values," the governor said.

Oh, please. Do we need another recitation of the hypocrisy surrounding this gambling stance - the history of casinos when Glendening was Prince George's County executive, the increased state lottery ventures since he's been governor, the money he's accepted over the years from various gambling interests, legal and otherwise?

Saturday at Pimlico, the crowd topped 91,000 people. On an ordinary day, they're thrilled if they draw 10 percent of those numbers, while the tracks in Delaware and West Virginia have entered an exhilarating new era since adding slot machines. That's a simple fact of life.

In Maryland, the state used lottery money to finance the building of new ballparks for baseball and football, games played by millionaire ingrates whose salaries are paid by such unconscionable means as Personal Seat Licenses for football and breathtaking baseball ticket prices.

But for horse racing, which employs maybe 17,000 people, most of whom scramble to make a living, we somehow find it immoral - that's the governor's phrase - to add gambling where gambling is already in existence.

So they struggle to keep Pimlico viable, and bear the embarrassments of Saturday. And this governor, declaring the track "nonpolitical," sits for radio interviews that he alone seems to consider "nonpolitical" and declares his great morality.

And, as he does, the young lady in the infield finishes baring her (bleeps), pulls her halter top back down and receives good-natured cheers from the crowd. There's no sense of menace in the air, nor sexuality. It's no big deal, just a tribe celebrating its youth and giddiness; forgive them their trespasses. They've grown up with flesh all over the movies and cable TV, and endless commercials for - well, for the state lottery. The Victorian Age is long gone, but Parris Glendening thinks he'll bring it back by blocking slot machines?

Pub date: 5/19/98

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