With slots or not, bettors say racing in state needs boost

Most agree revenue would benefit distressed sport

Horse Racing

April 03, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

If slots revenue would upgrade the quality of the state's thoroughbred racing, veteran horse players are in favor of installing the machines at the race tracks - something state lawmakers appear reluctant to do right away.

Several horse players had their say yesterday when Pimlico launched the Maryland Jockey Club's signature spring meeting in ideal weather conditions, with a robust crowd of 6,050. Meanwhile, in Annapolis, action in the House of Delegates diminished the likelihood of slots legislation this year.

"I really don't want to see slots come," said Carol Horton of Catonsville, who described herself as a regular who loves the sport. "But if that is the only way Maryland racing can maintain its level of power, then bring them on.

"The politicians don't get it. They don't realize that racing is really this state's main sport, a year-round venture that employs a lot of people."

Added Tom Karp of Cockeysville: "They have to do something for racing here. If slots are not the answer, then something else. If they don't, this [Pimlico] will be a graveyard in 10 years."

Many bettors are lukewarm about slots. They are married to the challenge of playing the horses, and casino-type gambling is not their style. They simply see the profits as a way to give racing a much-needed booster shot.

"If it'll make for better purses, better horses and better racing, I'm all for it," said Mike Rachiell of Highlandtown. "You read where if the slots don't come, they're not going to fix the place. That's not good.

"If we're going to stay on the Triple Crown list, we're going to have to improve things."

Pimlico patrons said they know of friends and acquaintances who go to Delaware and West Virginia often to bet slots. While there, they also can wager on horse racing that's vastly improved since those states' pre-slot days.

Sentiment also surfaced for financial help for the Baltimore city schools, one of the proposed beneficiaries if the slots bill passes in the legislature.

"We need money for education," said Ellsworth J. Diamond, a Baltimore resident. "Until they get that straightened out, I think slots is a bad deal. I have never heard of too many racetracks going broke. The schools are in bad shape and kids need the education."

John Rogers of Hampstead said he goes occasionally to Charles Town but would attend Pimlico with his wife to bet horses with slots as an alternative.

"Racing at Charles Town has gotten better than here and slots are what changed it around," he said. "The better horses are going there. I think racing should benefit. Why should all these other people get the money when the racing people looked ahead? Everybody wants money without doing anything for it.

Horton said she doubts the profits will go to the proper recipients.

"Look at the lottery. Twenty-some years later, we've still got a problem with where the money goes. It was supposed to go to education. I just want to see this save Maryland racing. It seems to have worked out in the two other small states that have it.

"California and Florida wanted the Preakness and luckily they fixed it so it couldn't be sold to another state," she added. "That's the biggest event in the state of Maryland. I've been to tracks all over and I can tell you we have the history, but not the class."

Karp worries that if the tracks are not upgraded, younger bettors will be turned off to racing.

"Why have all this money go north and west? Why not here?" he said. "If we don't do something, the Preakness will be at Laurel or somewhere else. Look, you can bet on cable [television] with a credit card these days, so that's all the more reason the facilities have to be better.

"Throwing money into Laurel and Pimlico now is good money chasing bad. You've got to tear them down and rebuild. Then, people in their 20's and early 30's will want to come."

NOTES: Despite the bitter weather, Laurel Park concluded its winter meeting with an increase of 4 percent in its all-sources handle (live and simulcast betting). The total was $240 million, an increase of $9 million over 2002.

"Considering that we experienced one of the worst winters on record, I am relatively pleased with our results, especially since we lost 5 1/2 live days because of the weather," said Lou Raffetto, the Maryland Jockey Club's chief operating officer."

Maryland racing continued to be a popular exported product, with the handle climbing 23 percent from $100 million to $123 million.

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