Trojan horse

March 18, 2003

FOR MONTHS, Marylanders connected to the state's once-prestigious horse racing industry have been pinning their hopes on slots.

Prize purses are too meager here to attract top horses, industry people say. They figured slots profits would mean fatter purses, faster horses, and thus more spirited competition, which in turn would lure crowds back to the tracks and spawn a new generation of fans.

Plenty of Maryland horse people have reservations about slot machine gambling, but have swallowed their doubts. Many have bought Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s argument that slots money going to tracks in Delaware and West Virginia should stay home, to help the horse industry and to help finance education and spare the state a hefty tax increase.

No wonder so many of the horse owners, breeders, trainers, farriers, veterinarians and farm owners who make up the still vital equine industry in this state are now disappointed. Turns out the slots bill as currently drafted won't help anyone but greedy track owners and gambling interests.

There's not enough for purses, not enough for schools, not enough to avoid a tax increase. Looks like Governor Ehrlich and the horse people counting on him have been snookered.

This slots legislation won't save Maryland horse racing. In fact, if live races become merely an optional sideline to giant gambling halls, the sport will likely die faster.

But there are other steps the General Assembly can take to revitalize a crucial portion of an industry estimated to be worth $5 billion in total assets, including 220,000 acres of open horse country. The lawmakers should take time out now to consider them.

Maryland's horse industry is currently dominated by recreational riders.

But racing provides crucial resources, including horses, and helps support myriad small businesses, such as equipment suppliers. What racing needs most is more fans - people who go out to the tracks, bring their families and spend the day enjoying the competition of equine athletes.

Thundering hoofbeats from 12 tons of horseflesh flying down the straightaway provide plenty of excitement. But Maryland tracks have been allowed to deteriorate into decrepit ratholes that put off even the most dedicated enthusiasts.

Perhaps it's time to end the near monopoly on track ownership in Maryland and create some healthy competition. Or maybe the state should run one or more tracks. How about a supertrack such as Churchill Downs in Kentucky, with upscale restaurants, big-screen TVs and classy ambiance? A horsey Camden Yards.

The General Assembly should start by passing a bill that would create an advisory group to undertake a detailed study and recommend by the end of the year how best to provide real help for horse racing.

Regardless of what happens with slots, the General Assembly must protect a tradition and historic industry that remains a state money-maker. That's just horse sense.

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