Politics aside, Glendening must help racetracks

November 11, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

SLOTS AT the racetracks? Not anytime soon, judging from last week's convincing re-election of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

It would be pointless to waste time trying to legalize slot machines at this juncture. Sure, racing officials should continue educating state legislators about shifting public opinion in favor of slots at the tracks. But it is more important to educate lawmakers -- and the governor -- about other options to meet the threat that booming slot machine profits in Delaware and West Virginia pose to Maryland's racing industry.

Slowly but surely, slots-rich tracks are drawing horses and bettors from Maryland. This will have a ripple effect, harming the entire racing infrastructure here, even putting at risk green space now used as horse farms.

Equally threatened is Pimlico Race Course. If Pimlico shuts down, it would mean a gaping eyesore in a blighted community and spread alarm through one of the city's remaining well-to-do neighborhoods -- Mount Washington.

Just as the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent the Port of Baltimore from becoming a backwater cargo port, so the state ought to take steps to keep Maryland racing vibrant.

Just as the state spent a half-billion dollars on stadiums for professional baseball and football teams, it must make an investment to preserve Maryland racing.

More than 10,000 jobs are tied to racing. The Preakness is Maryland's greatest tourism and sporting event. Racing is part of our history and part of what makes this area special.

Losing Pimlico

Sure, Mr. Glendening could ignore the industry's problems, especially since track owners tried mightily to defeat him. But that would be vindictive and short-sighted: He could wind up as the governor who saw Pimlico shut down on his watch. Or the governor who let the Preakness Stakes leave Maryland.

Besides, if the governor is serious about his "smart growth" program to end sprawl and preserve open spaces, a thriving racing industry must be maintained.

There is a relatively simple way to do that without adding slot machines.

First, dedicate proceeds from three instant lotteries to horse racing -- just as was done to build the Camden Yards stadiums.

A state-run gambling industry would be helping another state-approved gambling industry.

This would bring in $24 million a year. Two-thirds of that money, or $16 million, should go directly into bigger racing purses, with a fixed percentage aimed at creating high-profile racing weekends.

Second, place the remaining lottery money, $8 million, in a Racing Capital Improvement Fund each year. Then dedicate all state taxes raised directly from racing -- a net of more than $3 million annually -- to this fund.

Face lift for Pimlico

Stipulate that Pimlico renovations receive priority. This should begin the gradual modernization of Maryland tracks, which is essential to draw more fans.

Third, embark on an expensive state marketing and advertising effort to promote all aspects of Maryland racing. Both the state tourism agency and agriculture department should be given big budgets to market horse-breeding farms, the Fair Hills steeplechase races, the spring timber races, the State Fair races, harness races and major thoroughbred meetings.

These are untapped tourism and leisure-time draws that could generate millions in tax revenue and economic spinoffs.

For their part, track owners must create more high-stakes weekends of racing. That's the best way to draw interest. With help in marketing from the state, and extra purse money from the state, this could put new life in state racing.

None of this money would go into the pockets of track owners. But it would make owning race horses in Maryland a better investment and might encourage more horse breeding. It would draw better horses to the tracks and help horse farms survive.

The $11 million in annual capital improvements would permit incremental face lifts at the tracks.

Taking a Darwinian approach -- survival of the fittest -- would be shortsighted and harmful.

If the governor truly wants to keep slots out of racetracks, he'd better come up with viable suggestions for helping this endangered industry. So far, his answers have been political, not practical. Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics."

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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