Md. racing industry left at the gate

May 20, 2001|By Michael Olesker

FOR THE moment, Maryland racing people hold their tongues. They stage their annual Fabulous Charade, known as the Preakness Stakes, and keep all thoughts of Parris Glendening to themselves, though they silently accuse him of vengefulness, poor sportsmanship and rank hypocrisy.

On Thursday, the governor kissed off the annual Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico. So much for thoroughbred racing's stature at the State House. Yesterday, earnest prayers were issued to the weather gods, because the Preakness must take in enough money on this single day to support all other Maryland track ventures for the rest of the year. Yesterday, they opened Pimlico's doors and dreamed of better times to come.

"And look at this," one track insider was saying Thursday, after the Alibi Breakfast. He had a magazine in his hands, with Mayor Martin O'Malley on the front cover. It was the new issue of Baltimore magazine. On the back cover was a message from the state of Delaware.

"Now Playing - Thrills," it said. A woman with a bucket full of new money stood by a slot machine. "Dover Downs sparkles," the copy read. "Especially when you hit it big! Feel the excitement of non-stop slot action on the hottest games from 5 cents to $20. With big name entertainment, great dining, and the most exciting slot promotions around, the thrills never stop at Dover Downs Slots."

"What was once tacitly understood," the Maryland track insider was saying as he looked at the ad, "is now flaunted. They're saying, `Your market is our market.' They're using Baltimore magazine to tell people to come to Delaware instead of Pimlico and Laurel."

They needn't waste their money on advertising. Marylanders already populate Delaware's tracks, for the slots and the higher racing purses they've helped create. Delaware's tracks have slots, and Maryland's do not, and Parris Glendening says Maryland will never have slots while he is governor.

Grateful little Delaware, applauding Glendening like crazy, estimates that Marylanders trekking up I-95 for an afternoon's diversion leave about $100 million a year in its slot machines.

Thus, we have a Maryland racing industry on the skids. Last year, fans bet $111 million on races at Pimlico and Laurel; nine years ago, that figure was $376 million. It is no coincidence that Delaware's slots arrived in that period and, later, so did West Virginia's.

In their first three years, an estimated $8.6 billion was wagered on Delaware's slots, with hundreds of millions going into state coffers. In Maryland, we have deep thinkers predicting a breathtaking state budget deficit next year. Some say it could reach $300 million. In Baltimore, we're closing schools and libraries and laying off city workers to swallow all the red ink.

Imagine, say racetrack people, how slot machine revenues might eat into such financial troubles.

Instead, we have the annual weekend scene: the big Preakness Day crowd, the national television coverage, all contributing to the Fabulous Charade that Maryland racing is alive and breathing beyond this single day of the year.

Glendening has been immovable on the subject of slots, through all kinds of bad moments: the illegal campaign money he took from track officials, thus prompting him to keep all distance from them; the broken promise to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke that he would OK slots; the governor's hypocritical denunciations of gambling on moral grounds while he adds to the state's lottery budget and its commercials continually fill the airwaves.

Listen, nobody's suggesting slot machines - or any other form of gambling - as a way to invest money. It's an entertainment, a diversion. The governor should drive up to Dover Downs one day, or Delaware Park. He should notice all the Maryland tags on the parking lot.

Then he should notice who's playing the slots: lots of retirees, out for an afternoon's fling. They aren't betting their mortgages, just some mad money. Nobody forced them to show up. Maybe they noticed the ad on the back of Baltimore magazine.

Because they have slots, they have a racing industry in Delaware that is thriving. In Maryland, we do not. We have thousands of people employed in a business that is withering away.

When this governor goes away, maybe it will change. Maybe the next governor will not stand in the way, and maybe the General Assembly will understand the hypocrisy involved here. There is already gambling at racetracks; this is only putting another form of gambling there. But it is gambling that could rejuvenate an industry and a fragile state economy.

The alternative is to stage the annual Fabulous Charade called the Preakness, when racing seems alive and well for a single day each year - and then goes to sleep until the next spring.

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