Slots demise leaves an empty feeling at Pimlico

April 06, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IT WAS BEAUTIFUL at Pimlico on Thursday, the day after the great thinkers in Annapolis cast a cloud over thoroughbred horse racing in Maryland. The sun was shining, the track was fast and nobody much cared. With a crowd of 3,147 for the second day of the spring meet, you can headline this sport's obituary: Game called on account of indifference.

On Wednesday, slot machines intended as salvation for racing (and schools) were voted down by a House of Delegates committee. In Delaware and West Virginia, where Marylanders go to spend their mad money, the racetrack people did celebratory cartwheels. At Pimlico Race Course, where you dodged potholes in the parking lot, an attendant said, "Yeah, a pretty good crowd yesterday."

Wednesday was the track's great big Opening Day. The attendance was 6,000 people, more or less. "Probably half that today," the attendant says. In fact, the 3,147 who went through turnstiles were spaced across 12 hours, to the track's 11 p.m. closing. Some of them showed up just to watch simulcasts, toss a quick bet and split.

How empty was it at Pimlico?

So empty that they didn't even bother turning on all the escalators between floors.

So empty that a trainer sitting atop a picnic table muttered, "You couldn't get up a decent card game with this size crowd."

So empty that a retired city cop, John Raszkiewicz, who's been coming here for 50 years to bet the horses, said, "You can throw a stone through this place and not hit anybody."

"Would people come if they had slots?" Raszkiewicz was asked.

"All I can tell you," he says, "is that my church, St. Elizabeth's, at Baltimore and Lakewood, is going to Charles Town on May 1 for the slots. They got busloads going, so tell all the people about it."

How empty was Pimlico? Half an hour before post time, there's one guy standing at the Hi Ho! Bar. "It stinks," the guy says, meaning the killing of slots legislation, "and I blame you."

"Me?" I say.

"You and all the liberal Democrats against slots," he says, putting his face inches from mine.

I have a choice with this guy. I can point out that I've written a dozen newspaper columns arguing that it is hypocritical of a state with its own lottery, and its legacy of betting horse races, to make a moral argument against any kind of gambling. I can point out that such "liberal Democrats" as state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Del. Howard Rawlings were among slots' biggest champions. Or I can give him the shorthand response.

"Mister," I say with all the respect I can muster, "you are an idiot."

And I move off, wondering about the intensity of his politics - until I get to a nearby hot dog stand, where Charles Owens, 78, a retired Teamster, and Galvester Jones, 68, a retired General Motors mechanic, offer their own take.

"Joe De Francis," says Owens, "don't need all that money. The school kids are growing up stupid. They just push them from one grade to the next, and it doesn't matter that they aren't learning anything."

"It's a bunch of baloney about money helping the schools," says Jones. "It'll go to De Francis and those guys."

De Francis is chief executive of Pimlico and Laurel, and a big financial contributor to Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign.

All last summer, Ehrlich stressed that slots money would finance a new day for Maryland's schools. But when his original plan devoted 64 percent of slots profits to those schools, track owners complained it wouldn't leave enough money for their pockets.

So what did Ehrlich do? Revised the numbers - and introduced them at 9 o'clock at night, hoping nobody would notice at that late hour that he'd camouflaged the new figures to make it seem as if schools were still getting the biggest cut when they were not. With the new plan, track owners' percentages would go up.

Result? Gambling opponents, seizing on administration incompetence and duplicity, had all the ammunition they needed to stand in slots' way.

In other words, politically, there's enough blame here for both parties.

"Absolutely," said Oscar Mack, a retired city Health Department employee, looking up from his racing form. "Ehrlich sold 'em a dream about money for schools, and now he's got an excuse to cut social programs. And the Democrats like [House Speaker Michael E.] Busch get to be hypocritical about legalized gambling."

All of which leaves us with the great yawning emptiness now at Pimlico. On Thursday, maybe the biggest collection of people could be found at a picnic table under the grandstand. There were five of them, including two owners, a trainer and an ex-jockey. None wanted to be quoted by name, for fear of retribution.

All talked about a bleak future. But none thought slot machines were racing's salvation. They thought slots would enrich track owners but turn Pimlico into a slots emporium - with perhaps 30 racing dates a year. They wondered if night racing would draw more fans. They wondered about the lure of play areas for children, which Pimlico's owners have talked about for the last decade (and Delaware Park has had for years). All expressed fear for their livelihoods.

So Thursday was one swell day at Pimlico. The sun was shining, the track was fast. And there were, as they say, plenty of good seats available.

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