State must do more to help racing

May 28, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

QUICK: What's the most lucrative sport for Maryland? No, it isn't baseball or football. It's horse racing.

Economic studies (the most recent done in 1998) show the sport of kings has an annual economic impact of anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

The biggest one-day sports event in Maryland? Not opening day at Oriole Park or at the Ravens' stadium. It's the Preakness at Pimlico, which draws close to 100,000 spectators, thousands of journalists, nationwide TV coverage and contributes $51 million to the city and state economies.

Yet for a year-round industry that adds so much to Maryland, this sport gets little respect -- and little help. While state government was ending a half-billion dollars on the Camden Yards complex to support a baseball team and a football team, the state puts in -- grudgingly -- just $10 million a year to boost purse money paid to owners, jockeys and trainers at the state's five race tracks (Pimlico, Laurel, Timonium, Rosecroft and Ocean Downs).

And when it came time this year to help Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft with capital upgrades, state officials didn't offer to build new racetracks -- as they had done for pro football and baseball teams -- but let the tracks borrow $40 million from a quasi-state agency as long as every penny is paid back without taxpayer support.

Even after enacting this financing plan, the state devised a complicated approval process that could delay improvements for many months.

Politicians love to micromanage the tracks. Even though it's an industry that has been struggling, you'd never know it from the way politicos -- from the governor and House speaker on down -- have messed with the sport.

They even came up with the absurd notion-- that runs counter to the experience nationwide- that competition would be good for the barely break-even Maryland tracks, that a new race track in Western Maryland, running a string of off-track betting parlors, would somehow strengthen Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft instead of sucking revenue from them.

Each year in the spring, we celebrate the Preakness. And with good reason, given its tradition, prestige and economic importance.

But for the rest of the year, the tracks are largely forgotten.

While the state spared no expense giving Art Modell and Peter Angelos luxurious sports facilities filled with fan-friendly amenities, there's no thought of building gleaming new facilities for the racing industry.

"Do it yourself!" is what politicians tell track operators.

Short of erecting a Camden Yards-style horse-racing complex the state could take a few important steps to bolster the industry and ward off a new drive to bring slot machines to Maryland tracks.

It could assume the financial burden for stabling 2,000 Thoroughbred horses that are the life-blood for racing, and for horse farms, in Maryland. That's a $10 million annual operating expense the track owners must pick up.

The state's economic development and tourism agencies could spend heavily to promote aspects of racing in Maryland as part of the governor's Smart Growth plan. After all, a stronger racing industry would protect Maryland's 900 horse farms and keep 200,000 acres green and safe from development.

The state racing commission should stop years of dithering and approve telephone wagering regulations. This could give local tracks a major infusion of funds.

The governor blocked commission votes in prior years. But now the legislature has demanded that the commission act, and the governor seems willing to go along. The concern is that other political forces will intervene.

Politics is ruining this sport. Politics and politicians have gotten so deeply entwined in Maryland racing that they are strangling it.

Would the governor and legislature dare demand changes in Peter Angelos' Oriole Park operations.? No way. Would they tell Art Modell to hire a marketing director or get community input on his plans for the Ravens' stadium?

Yet state officials seem to enjoy dictating terms to track operators -- though these are privately: owned facilities, not taxpayer-owned structures like the Angelos and Modell edifices at Camden Yards.

The difference -- and the irony -- seems to escape state officials. They have lost sight of the potential benefits that could flow from creating a first-class racing industry in Maryland.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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