`On pins and needles' awaiting slots decision

Those with much to lose, others with mere interest count down the final days

April 09, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Billy Boniface is spending some restless nights as the clock winds down to Monday's scheduled end of the General Assembly session with no clear resolution on slots in sight.

The outcome, he says, will have a profound effect on his family-owned thoroughbred horse breeding and training farm in Harford County. He sees slot-machine gambling as vital to the economic well-being of Maryland's horse industry.

"We go to bed thinking about it," Boniface said. "We all thought by April 12 it would all be over with, and now we're told that it might not be over with then after all. We might be thinking about it when we go to bed at night for quite some time.

"Right now we have a current population of about 200 head of horses," he said. "If slots fail, that will probably be cut in half the first couple of years. It's really bad for us because we still have a huge mortgage."

Barbara Knickelbein of Glen Burnie is spending her own restless nights waiting for the slots issue to be resolved. But she is hoping that the outcome will be the opposite of what Boniface wants.

The co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland has been fighting for the past decade to keep slots and casino-style gambling out of Maryland.

Her battle started in 1995 when she learned about proposals to put casinos in Ocean City, where she and her husband owned property. She did some research, didn't like what she found and embarked on a crusade to keep slots out.

"It is nerve-wracking," she said. "We've done everything we could possibly do, but at this point it's all politics."

The sentiments of Boniface and Knickelbein were echoed by others involved in the slots battle - those who have testified before legislative committees, taken part in rallies or otherwise engaged in one of the most contentious debates in Maryland.

The anxiety level among horsemen is growing as the session winds to a close, said Tom Bowman, a veterinarian and horse breeder who is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"Anxious is a gross understatement," he said. "We're on pins and needles. The future of some of the horse breeding farms depends on what will happen in the next few days."

Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of the anti-slots group stopslotsmaryland.com, knows that unsettled feeling all too well. For him, the slots battle began with a concern his Mount Washington neighborhood near Pimlico Race Course.

"I've always been fairly optimistic about our prospects in terms of defeating the legislation, but you do swing from despair to elation and back - sometimes very rapidly," he said.

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