Track owners to intensify plea for slots

They want preference if machines are allowed

Other venues may be considered

State legislators to tour Pimlico and Laurel Park

October 05, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

When Maryland legislators considering the legalization of slot machines tour Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park on Tuesday, they are certain to hear familiar arguments from track owners who contend that the devices are a matter of economic survival for their industry.

But the pleas will have a new urgency as momentum builds to explore a formerly taboo idea: locating the lucrative machines at sites other than the racetracks. To maintain their monopoly on private-sector gambling, racing interests must persuade legislators not only to legalize slots, but also to restrict them to racetracks.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in The Sun on Sunday incorrectly stated that Pimlico Race Course is within Del. Howard P. Rawlings' legislative district. Rawlings' district includes the neighborhoods immediately south of the racetrack but not the track itself.

It could prove a tough sell.

Two independent studies released this summer concluded that slots could generate more money for the state treasury if they were at places other than the tracks. And some key lawmakers are questioning why the focus should center strictly on racetracks.

"I can't see any justification why [slots] should be an entitlement to racetracks only," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a key figure in this year's slots debate.

The Anne Arundel County Democrat has talked about several alternatives, such as building state-owned slots emporiums near easily accessible highways and on the state's borders.

Busch has mentioned the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium and the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit as venues that could be considered for slots ventures.

Other political figures are pushing for a full-scale casino at National Harbor, just across the Potomac River from Washington. And talk surfaces periodically about possible casino or slot ventures at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the Rocky Gap resort in Allegany County, or in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

Maryland racing executives say their worst nightmare would be if the state allows slots at other sites but not racetracks.

"If they come into the state ... and we don't get them, that is going to be a fatal blow to the racetracks here," said Timothy Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks. "If they expand gambling at other locations and don't include the racetracks, there's no way to be competitive moving forward."

His assessment was shared by Lonny Powell, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, a trade group of racing states.

"The worst-case scenario for Maryland racing would be land-based casinos with no slots at the tracks," Powell said. "It's a no-brainer. The industry will die a very quick death."

But others are skeptical.

They `can coexist'

Jeffrey C. Hooke, an investment analyst from Silver Spring who has studied the slots issue for a Maryland tax policy group, said he doesn't see slots at other sites delivering a fatal blow to horse racing. He said there is little overlap among people who bet on horses and those who bet on slots.

"My preliminary research suggests that racetracks can coexist with casinos," Hooke said. "That's been proven in other states, such as Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky."

Indiana and Illinois have riverboat casinos, while Kentucky is affected by casino ventures on its borders. Maryland, too, allowed slot machines at bars, restaurants and other sites in a few counties before 1968 - an era when horse racing thrived. The machines were eventually banned because of concerns about political corruption and social ills.

Hooke argues that gambling licenses - if the state allows slots - should be auctioned to the highest bidder so the state's taxpayers reap the greatest benefits.

Casino opponents have long argued against trying to revive one form of gambling with another. They say that adding slots would provide an unjustified subsidy to a sport that has squandered its fan base, and would fundamentally change the character of racetracks.

Earl L. Grinols, an economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies gambling issues, said allowing slots would simply turn racetracks into casinos. It will not revive the sport, he predicts.

"What you are going to get is casinos with a little bit of vestigial racing on the side," Grinols said.

Legislation supported by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that passed the state Senate but faltered in the House this year would have been a windfall for the racing industry. It would have restricted slots to Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County and a track proposed for Western Maryland.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, who is head of the House Ways and Means Committee that is studying the slots issue, said everything is on the table. But she made it clear that she expects racetracks to be included if slots are approved.

"We would not consider putting them at other places and not at the racetracks," said Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "They are part of the package. If we decide to have slots, the tracks will be a player in that."

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