A muddy race for Md. slots

Horse racing: With billions at stake, and an industry in the balance, the political debate reopens over `enhanced gaming' at Maryland tracks.

May 08, 2002|By Jon Morgan and Tom Keyser | Jon Morgan and Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The debate over slot machines - long seen as a billion-dollar lifeline for Maryland's foundering horse racing industry - is beginning anew. But a lack of leadership and an abundance of infighting have so marginalized racing's influence that the industry may be denied the riches it seeks.

Whether to allow casino-style slot machines is a contentious issue that candidates will start to address in earnest as the campaign for governor takes shape. Also taking sides will be members of the General Assembly, all up for election in November.

Trouble is, public feuding and broken promises by racing leaders have irked key politicians who are staking out their positions for the campaign and the next legislative session. Lawmakers may view the machines primarily as a way to pay for education and other government programs - "slots for tots" as boosters say.

There is little doubt the machines can be lucrative. Last year in Delaware, gamblers spent $3.5 billion on slot machines at the thoroughbred track near Wilmington. The machines at Delaware Park and two harness facilities generate tens of millions of dollars for racing and contribute to the competition that Maryland faces from tracks there and in West Virginia, which also has slots at racetracks.

Maryland, of course, does have a major advantage: It is the site of one of the sport's biggest events, the Preakness Stakes, to be run May 18 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

But even that big event can do only so much to sustain racing year-round. Hence the desire for slots at the tracks, which is not a given.

"Unless there is some coming together and genuine feeling that people can work together, this so-called `enhanced gaming' might be located at places other than the tracks," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat from Prince George's County.

If Maryland approves slots, it would probably control the machines and keep the lion's share of the proceeds, predicts state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"We won't do what they did in Delaware. I'll tell you that," she said.

Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-chair of the Special Committee on Gaming, appointed to explore the slots issue, was blunt about how the failings of racing's leadership have changed the political dynamic.

"They don't just shoot themselves in the foot, they shoot themselves in the head," he said. "In my opinion, if slots come to Maryland, the racetracks aren't going to run the show. You are not going to let the gang that can't shoot straight run that show."

Such words once would have been heresy in the red-carpeted chambers of the State House, where a swaggering Frank J. De Francis, the late owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, swooped into hearings to collect tax breaks and favors. His son, Joseph, and daughter, Karin, inherited their father's racetracks but not his clout. No one has unified the industry as he did.

The eye of the storm

Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the tracks, stands behind the job he's done. He points out that he has kept year-round racing - and its thousands of jobs - alive in the face of stiff competition from other sports and neighboring tracks with slots. He's done it, he said, with prudent management and selected improvements at Laurel and Pimlico. Lately, he said, he has had to devote much of his attention to trying to make peace among the state's thoroughbred and harness trainers, horse owners, breeders and track operators.

"Unity has always been important, but it's more important now than it's ever been," he said.

The sport's fall from prominence has produced a harsh political climate. Maryland lawmakers who once could be counted on to pass industry-backed initiatives are instead handing out scoldings. A once-compliant racing commission has turned activist, even hostile. Leaders from the governor on down are griping about missed opportunities.

"The Maryland Jockey Club has an awful lot of work to do to make its entertainment product more attractive to a bigger audience," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "We're still fumbling around trying to keep up with the cutting edge of horse racing."

Several industry initiatives have failed to produce the results that lawmakers expected:

The number of places where people can bet on horses away from Maryland's tracks has shrunk from five to three in recent years, even though off-track betting elsewhere is a popular moneymaker.

Telephone betting, authorized 18 years ago, stalled in the test stages in Maryland. Out-of-state firms dominate the growing market, in which players set up accounts and place bets by phone or computer.

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