Slots vote puts racing's back to wall

Horse Racing

April 03, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

At post time, there was still a glimmer of hope. OK, maybe not a glimmer, more like a vague, desperate hope that Maryland horse racing's future might somehow be salvaged, maybe even secured.

"I don't want to say we're on pins and needles, but this meet does start in limbo," Maryland Jockey Club CEO Lou Raffetto said yesterday.

"We're all waiting. I don't like to think about the alternative because it scares me what that means to us," he said.

FOR THE RECORD - In a column in yesterday's sports section, the age of the Preakness Stakes was reported incorrectly. This year's race will be the 128th. Also, in the same article, it was reported incorrectly that a state Senate subcommittee had voted not to allow a slots bill onto the floor for a general vote. In fact, the bill was approved by the Senate but was defeated by a House committee. The Sun regrets the errors.

Opening Day of Pimlico's spring meet was a weird one, because as it wore on, it drew closer to what everyone figured was a foregone conclusion: The state's slot machine bill that was going to be racing's salvation - not to mention education's and taxation's salvation - was dying, if not already DOA.

Walking through the barns behind the grandstand at Pimlico yesterday, you'd wave to grooms and riders and say, casually: "How's it going?"

It was an innocuous greeting. Still, everyone stopped and answered with the same question: "What's the news in Annapolis?"

It was a cruel bit of timing, really. The spring meet at Pimlico commenced. Slots circled the drain. No wonder the mood at Baltimore's other Opening Day was something between frustrated and grim.

"It hurts a lot. We've been swallowing oxygen for so long, but the slots bill was attached to every county budget in Maryland. There's going to be a lot of pain all over the state," thoroughbred horse breeder Michael Pons said.

"For us, everyone feels like they got kicked in the gut today. This is tough for the game. It hurts the farms the most because we're dug in. We want to be here. We can't pick up like the riders or trainers can. We shouldn't have to suffer. We should be rewarded for being here, creating jobs, keeping green space, helping the economy," Pons said.

This was the refrain all around Pimlico yesterday, where plans by new track owner Frank Stronach's Magna International to refurbish the track and build a $300 million "racino" will not go through.

Listen to a few things a trainer named Ralph Conti had to say about the fate of horse racing in Maryland, which now suffers because Delaware and West Virginia can lure gamblers, horse trainers and jockeys with slots and bigger purses.

"The cause of the problem are those greedy politicians," Conti said, sitting outside of Barn A, scrubbing down some harness equipment.

Conti is a Baltimore native. It kills him to drive to Charles Town in West Virginia and see what slots money has done to that place.

"It used to be a dump, like someone dropped a bomb on it. Now, it's beautiful. They even built a parking garage, and you know what? All the cars are from Maryland. We should have had slots first. We should have had them already. And what did Delaware make last year from slots at their tracks? I heard a billion dollars," he said.

"I'll tell you what. The people against this must not have a clue how many people are part of this industry. There are farmers, van drivers, grooms, riders, exercise riders and stupid people like me. A lot of people make their living in this business," Conti said.

"You know what my friend said we should do? We should take all the congressmen, all the senators and politicians and put them on a boat and put them out to sea."

Yesterday was supposed to be one of the better days for horse racing in Maryland. It could have been, considering the sunshine and heat beating down on this patch of concrete and dirt still important for the history and tradition it represents, and carries on, despite the - shall we say - antiquated environs. This year will be the 133rd running of the Preakness.

Besides, admission was free yesterday at Pimlico, hot dogs and ice cream a buck. For a track that gets packed to the rafters with 100,000 on Preakness Saturday, the 6,000 who turned out yesterday was a tally that proves this business needs to put the brakes on attrition, fast.

"We thought they were dollar beers. We were wrong, but we're still staying," said John Hayes of Parkville, a racing fan who comes to Pimlico about four times a year.

"We need slots. Write that down. This place should be better and they need bigger purses so we can get better horses," said Alex Rahll, also of Parkville.

No one will ever call this slice of North Baltimore God's country. Years ago, there used to be trees for shade behind the grandstand and the air used to be infused with the smell of sour mash being cooked for the horse's breakfast. Now there's just an ocean of rutted concrete and this time-warp of a structure they call home to the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

That's why yesterday could have signaled the dawn of a new era in horse racing, even for those who abhor the idea of gambling as a panacea for all that ails racing and for red-ink state budgets.

Instead, when the state Senate subcommittee voted to not allow the bill onto the floor for a general vote, the exact opposite happened. Maryland's horse racing's odds got a lot longer.

"The exodus will continue. That's what will hurt us," Pons said.

"This is like the perfect storm. A war, a bad economy, a difficult winter and now this? Our breeding volumes are half of what they were two years ago. It makes you scratch your head."

Or wonder whether anyone in a position to bolster one of Maryland' s signature industries really gets it.

"What's to keep me here if the purses are bigger in Pennsylvania, which is about to get slots, too?" asked trainer Jeff Carle.

Yesterday, Opening Day at Pimlico, the winner's circle was empty.

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