Genie is out of the bottle on horse track legislation

August 09, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

EVERY time our governor goes near a horse track, he seems to step in it. He's done so again.

By blurting out sweet thoughts he believed would win him bonus points with Sun editorial writers, Gov. Parris N. Glendening kicked off a storm of controversy that his foes eagerly embraced.

In the process, though, Mr. Glendening seems to have laid the groundwork for addressing Maryland's horse-racing quandary after the November election -- regardless of who wins.

All three of the major candidates -- Mr. Glendening, his Democratic opponent Eileen M. Rehrmann and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- have now gone on record acknowledging the need to come up with ways to bolster horse racing in this state.

Mr. Glendening's approach was unexpected. He said he liked the notion of state financial support for a new track that combined the amenities of a freshly built sports complex but had the old-time look of a 1920s racetrack. Sort of an Oriole Park for thoroughbreds.

Clearly, the governor was floating an idea. But when it hit the newspapers, it sounded a whole lot different. Ms. Sauerbrey and Ms. Rehrmann were quick to denounce the plan and compare it to the two football stadiums Mr. Glendening had taxpayers help underwrite -- a sore point with many voters.

Foes pile on

Ms. Rehrmann, in particular, is trying to make a mountain out of this campaign molehill. She badly needs some ammunition to use against Mr. Glendening.

If she succeeds in turning this proposal into a cornerstone of the primary election, it helps her immensely. But chances are this plan will recede from voters' minds as Mr. Glendening reminds folks he was merely throwing out an idea, a concept, for discussion.

Still, the genie is out of the bottle. Whoever becomes governor will have to address the state's racing dilemma.

Does the next governor push for slot machines at race tracks -- as Ms. Rehrmann has proposed and Ms. Sauerbrey says she might consider? Does the next governor propose other solutions -- as Mr. Glendening seems to be hinting at in his ham-handed way?

Short of going the slots route, there are steps state officials could take. Here are a few:

* Make state government an active partner in marketing and promoting racing, particularly major events such as the Preakness and the Maryland Million. State tourism, agriculture and economic development agencies should be spending millions to make racing a popular sport.

* The state lottery agency could form a joint marketing partnership with state racetracks to leverage the lottery's advertising dollars for mutual benefit.

* Lump all state gambling and sporting ventures under a new Maryland Sports Commission. The best way would be to rename the Maryland Stadium Authority and broaden its powers.

* The state should buy the Bowie training facility from the Maryland Jockey Club and turn it into a green-space buffer for recreation and parks. The proceeds could provide new stables and a training track at Laurel. This would save track owners millions in operating expenses, improve efficiency and aid the state's "smart growth" initiative.

* Give the go-ahead for telephone wagering here. It is a reality in New York and Pennsylvania. Many Marylanders bet by phone through those outlets already. And legislation is moving through Congress to set federal standards. The Maryland Racing Commission seems ready to approve this, but the governor wants to put off a decision until after the election.

* Designate a source of revenue for higher purses at Maryland tracks. This is pivotal to keeping the tracks competitive and boosting the fortunes of Maryland jockeys, trainers and breeders.

* Earmark two instant sports lotteries for a racing capital improvement fund. The sports commission can decide which projects get priority. These lottery proceeds would pay off bonds going toward renovations that make tracks customer-friendly.

Delaware threat

Maryland racing is under severe threat from Delaware tracks. Simulcast revenue here is way down as more interest is being shown in the rich Delaware races. Slot machine proceeds are generating vast increases in Delaware purses -- some $75 million in extra purse money in just 32 months.

Perhaps the only way to compete is to mirror Delaware's (and West Virginia's) success. Or perhaps other methods will work better over the long haul. We'll find out after the election which approach the next governor will try.

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

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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